When I was getting ready to plant my handful of family heirloom half-runner bean seed, I called my Granddaddy to ask a very important question.
Should I plant the black seeds?
I don’t know if you can see it well on the photograph, but those seeds are a gorgeous blue-black with very slight overtones of purple in the right light. Even though they looked pretty, there were only about 6 or 7 of them in my original batch of 25 seeds. Plus, they’re smaller and slimmer than the brown seeds, and their eyes aren’t rimmed in a gold band. They certainly didn’t look like they went in the same family as the striped and mottled beans. And I was definitely concerned about getting the pure seed strain at the end of my efforts.
“Oh, yes,” Granddaddy said. “You need them both.”
He sounded alarmed that I’d even thought of separating the two, and he then explained to me that without both, the strain would not stay strong. That you needed some of both for it to work. And no, he didn’t know why. He didn’t even need to know why.
“That’s just the way it is.”
I am still like a four-year-old in that way. I need to ask WHY. You’d think I’d have learned by now this is a question almost never answered.
Anyway, in spite of not knowing why, he was 100% sure that if you separated the two colors of seed, you’d have disaster on your hands. He was a little vague on how he knew this to be true. But I wasn’t about to take chances with the family heritage.
I planted both.
Every single seed came up. I’m not sure if I mentioned that before. It’s a level of seed viability hardly ever seen by the professional seed companies. 100% germination rate? That’s crazy. I kept telling people I knew about this — but no one seemed suitably impressed. I think my friends don’t spend enough time cozied up to the gardening catalogs in winter, going into semi-trance-like states as they picture first one possible garden and then another, memorizing the beautiful details, including latin nomenclature, very nearly salivating — like I do.
Anyway, a 100% germination rate is impressive. But then we started saving the seeds and eating the beans… and no black seeds. I was getting quite anxious about it when F. was helping me snap beans for Romanian Green Bean Soup one night about three weeks ago, and out popped the most gorgeous dark purple bean. It was his bean, and he showed it to me as a pretty curiosity. I squealed for joy and even danced around the kitchen a little bit. F. thought I’d gone nuts.
When they are still tender, these beans are the most beautiful rich, glowing purple I’ve ever seen. I made him go and photograph that bean immediately while I continued to supervise the soup. (I’ll post the pic sometime, I’m sure.)
And since then, I’ve had enough dark beans to make the proper proportion with the striped and mottled beans. They look so lovely in their jars, sleeping together until next planting season.
Apparently, the Plains Indians kept the seeds of variously colored squashes together for the same reason. This careful mixing kept the seed strong for generations. Mother Nature, herself, does this, always preferring a wild and exuberantly creative genetic diversity. I’m sure our modern Western culture’s preference for monoculture is just baffling to her — if not downright insulting.
And I recently read this about the Cherokee cornfield bean*: “The story goes that the different color varieties should not be separated out or else they will barely flower. Much like a family, they are stronger when kept together.”
I like this so much. You can use this as a metaphor for people, families, races, genders, bio-regions, small and diverse organic farms, species facing extinction… as well as the obvious: seeds.
We need each other. All of us are essential here.
And that’s just the way it is.
*The Cherokee cornfield bean is a pole bean for growing up corn stalks. The beans are all different earth tones. Not to be confused with my family heirloom, which comes in two distinct colorways, as shown above, and grows low to the ground. Still, doesn’t it sound thrilling to be shelling or snapping beans and not know whether you’ll end up with copper, sienna, ochre, or coffee-colored beans in your hand? I’d love to try them, myself, if I had the space. To buy these wonderful heirloom beans for your own garden, you can go here.