Did you know that the magic beans from “Jack and the Beanstalk” were scarlet runner beans? It’s true, Andrew Lang says so in The Red Fairy Book:
When [Jack] brought [the beans] home to his mother instead of the money she expected for her nice cow, she was very vexed and shed many tears, scolding Jack for his folly. He was very sorry, and mother and son went to bed very sadly that night; their last hope seemed gone.
At daybreak Jack rose and went out into the garden.
‘At least,’ he thought, ‘I will sow the wonderful beans. Mother says that they are just common scarlet-runners, and nothing else; but I may as well sow them.’
Of course, you know the rest of the deal: massive beanstalk, Jack climbing, doing a spot of breaking and entering and theft, Fi-Fi-Fo-Fum, giant dropping off beanstalk, happily ever after. Incidentally, the Lang version has Jack helping himself to the giant’s stuff quite rightfully, because he’s really not a peasant at all, but the son of the knight who used to own the castle and was killed by the giant along with all of Jack’s older siblings. Fortunately, the knight’s wife was on a visit to her old nurse in the village, along with Baby Jack. When she got the news about the massacre she just stayed put and pretended to be a peasant until her son was old enough to take revenge on the giant and get the castle back, meanwhile earning their living with her spinning wheel and the produce of the little cow she’d bought. Enter the plot of the story as we know it.
I’m sorry, Mr Lang, that elaborate backstory just doesn’t work for me; part of the fun of “Jack and the Beanstalk” is precisely that Jack is a peasant boy, and not a very bright one at that. Stop making excuses for his B&E and robbery-with-violence; this is a story of a poor little guy defeating a big rich one and making it against all the odds, winning his fortune not because it’s his by law, but because of sheer dumb luck and gutsy opportunism.
However, that’s not really what I was going to talk about – my point today was Scarlet Runner Beans. I love those things, and I’ve planted some every year. I like eating them as green beans, but the problem I have with that is that I hardly ever get around to picking them when they’re still green and tender – I can’t find them in the tangle of leaves, and quite frankly, I’m too lazy to search for them. So I’ve been growing them pretty much as ornamentals. I figure if people grow climbing vines like clematis for their flowers, I can grow beans for the same purpose. And they really are pretty, with their bright red flowers.
And then usually, at the end of the season when the vines die off, I find all these plump, dry pods with those funky black-and-purple-spotted beans inside. I’ve been collecting them just to have more to plant the next year, but then this year I got to wondering if you could just eat them as dried beans, like kidney beans or something, and sure enough, according to the Internet you can. I haven’t tried it yet, but I plan to – I got a small bowl full of beans off the four or five bean plants I had, it should be enough for a meal.
So, climbing foliage, pretty flowers, tasty fresh green beans, lovely speckled beans, and beans to save for eating in winter. What a great plant. Never mind giants’ castles at the top, there’s enough here to make them worthwhile just like that.
Life, the Universe, and Scarlet Runner Beans. I’ll be sure to save a few for planting next year.