Growing Research

Blue Speckled Tepary Beans

Last year, I was doing research into desert ecosystems for a story project.  Among the books I read was a short one produced by the Arizona Desert Museum about how various plants and animals adapt to an environment that not only gets very little water, but which also experiences extremes of heat and cold.  The plants mentioned included those that had been domesticated by the indigenous populations.  One of these was a type of bean I’d never heard of before: the tepary bean.

Tepary beans were said to grow in high temperatures, need very little water, and produce beans that are flavorful and very high in protein.  What wasn’t there to like?

Love at first sight is an irrational reaction, so I’m not going to attempt to explain why, but I fell madly in love with the idea of adding tepary beans to our garden.   Oh, I can give logical arguments, such as in recent years we’ve been dealing with temperatures peaking in the low 100 degree range for weeks at a time during the summer, but such logic would diminish my irrational obsession with the idea.

Plants of the Southwest here in Albuquerque carried seeds for a couple different tepary varieties. I chose the one that had a shortest growing time.  That the “blue speckled tepary bean” also sounded rather pretty was an added incentive.

For the next few months, I mulled over where to plant the seeds.  Although we are enthusiastic gardeners, we’re also practitioners of what has sometimes been called the “oasis watering” strategy.  In this, only limited areas (the “oasis”) receive regular watering.  The rest are watered more irregularly.  In our case, we often water by hand using “grey water.”

My research showed that even though tepary beans were listed as needing very little water, they did benefit from being planted in flood plains or other areas that experienced at least limited deep soaking.  I recalled that, in the long bed on the southwest side of our house, there was one row where anything we planted died.  We’d come to the conclusion that its orientation combined with the closeness to the side of the house (which soaks up heat) made this area too hot.

(For those of you who garden, yes, we did make sure the area was getting water.  Yes, we did rotate crops.  Yes, we did amend the soil, including regular trench composting to add slow-releasing nutrients.  Yes, we dug over the soil to assure salts hadn’t built up in that area.)

Since this row had become more or less waste space, we decided to put the tepary seeds in there.  After all, part of the appeal was that they were supposed to thrive on heat and low water.

The seeds germinated rapidly – far more quickly than the bush beans and lianas that we put in around the same time.  The plants leafed out quickly as well.  We observed that during the heat of the day, the leaves would re-orient, almost folding so as to receive less direct sunlight.  Fascinating!

Although the tepary bean plants leafed out quickly, they didn’t flower.  I did some research and decided that maybe – even in that hot, brutal zone – they were getting too much water.  Since we use soaker hoses, it was easy to move these to one side so that the bean plants received less water.  Soon we began to see flowers, tiny pale pink blossoms that shared the tendency of the leaves to hide during the heat of the day.

Later, these produced small pods holding (on average) three to five seeds.  For quite a while, we thought we might only get back what we had planted.  The minute seeds took forever to fill a baby food jar.  Then, late summer, when the bush beans had long ceased to produce, we began to discover more and more tepary pods.  Soon we filled the baby food jar and moved to a larger jar that held about a cup.  We filled that, and moved to a two cup jar.

We quickly learned we needed to pick the pods as soon as they were dry because – unlike most beans (where you can just pick the entire plants and the beans will stay in the pods for later harvest), when a tepary bean pod dried, it twisted in on itself, releasing the beans, sometimes at a distance from the original plant.  We learned that a pop and rattle from the cupboard where we stored the unshelled beans meant that the beans were shelling themselves.

As of this writing, that jar is full and we’ll probably get at least a quarter cup more.  That may not sound like much, but that’s many, many times more than we initially planted.

We plan to save some seeds for next year’s planting, and intend to try some even less hospitable parts of the garden, just to see how much the tepary beans can take.  We might even try a second variety.  There’s one called Santa Rosa that isn’t as pretty, but produces a larger seed.

So, from research for a story came a very interesting gardening project.  We have yet to cook any of the beans, but I’ve heard that tepary bean humus is very tasty.  I’ll let you know!

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6 Responses to “Growing Research”

  1. Louis Robinson Says:

    They didn’t fruit until late summer because they were too busy strangling geckos, perhaps?

    They are pretty things, though.

  2. futurespastsite Says:

    Makes me wish we were growing them here.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Experiments have been made with growing teparies in wetter climates, and they don’t do as well. They tend to produce more foliage than seeds. One article compared their growth to that of alfalfa, which I thought was interesting.

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        Thought so: beans and alfalfa are all genuses of the Fabaceae – or legume – family, so they’re fairly closely related. I suspect that teparies are closer than most beans to alfalfa, but since i know a lot more about the cladistics of the Dinosauria than I do about any modern plant…

  3. Harried Harry Says:

    Very interesting article. I’m glad you found a good way to update your garden and not use too much water. Some of the stories I’ve read by Louis L’Amour refer to the different types of foods the Native American tribes used to grow. Each had a purpose and all served to provide for the needs of the peoples. The beans you show are pretty, so you can string them if you want to show them off. In my view, we all need to learn more about the plants used in the past so we can become more efficient in the future as water becomes more scarce. Thanks again for a great article. Maybe you’ll be able to use the concept in one of your storylines. Enjoy your week.

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