Few heritage beans receive much media attention, however the attractively coloured and named Blue Jay recently came to national notice through an article on in Canada’s Globe and Mail by Erin Anderssen (https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-blue-jay-bean-seed-conservation/). The article highlighted the importance of heritage seeds. Among other things it told a story of Shirley Bellows who bought Blue Jay seeds from the Upper Canada Seed Company and produced delicious green pods and dry seeds.
The Blue Jay bean was recognized first in 1977 by Russ Crow of Illinois in a dry pod of a heritage white French variety (Comtesse de Chambord). Russ Crow is a beanaholic (see his website https://www.abeancollectorswindow.com/) and kept these unusual seeds naming them Blue Jay. He saved and grew the seeds for several years and made them widely available through Seeds Savers Exchange. Seeds of Diversity Canada, our Heritage Bean Project partner, has played a key role in the preservation of this variety.
Blue Jay is a short but robust common bush bean (Phaseolus vulgaris). It grows to about 35-40 cm (14-16”) tall and has many (8-12) thick paired branches near the base of the stem. There is no tendency to vine as in many other bush varieties. Blue Jay has pink buds that open into medium pink flowers.
Blue Jay pods are moderately long, thin and round in cross section. Pods vary from straight to strongly curved toward the tip where they extend into a curved point 1-1.5 cm (about ½”) long. Pod colour ranges from pale straw yellow to lightly marked in grey violet (Figure 1). Dry pods are somewhat atypical because when you shell them, the pods often break crosswise rather than lengthwise (Figure 1). Almost always one or two beans remain attached within the pod. Pod length varies from 13-16 cm averaging about 14 cm (6”). The pods dry at the about same time meaning that you can get away with a single harvest for dry beans.
Blue Jay seeds are remarkable for their colouring. They vary from dark navy blue to dark purple, almost black, and may be highly speckled with light gray on the dark background (Figure 2). Some seeds are even predominantly greyish white. The beans are typically bean shaped, small and round in cross section. They vary from 1-1.4 cm long, with a width of about half a cm (1/5”) and height from 0.5-0.7 cm (1/5”). The attachment scar is small white and narrow (Figure 2). When shelled, there is often a distinctive thin whiskery structure extending from the scar in both directions along the length of the bean (Figure 3). In my experience this is one of very few beans with this feature. You can expect 5-6 (range 3-7) seeds per pod.
This variety develops moderately quickly. Seed sown on June 16 in 2022 on the Saanich Peninsula of Vancouver Island, germinated well by July 1, and had begun to branch. Some bushes were in full bloom by mid July with first pods showing by July 29 and many thin 4-5 cm pods by August 5. Accordingly green beans can be harvested in 45-50 days from a late spring sowing. By August 18 plants began to yellow and no flowers remained. Many spotted pods began to mature by August 25 and plants had turned yellow. I harvested mostly dry (90%) pods on Sept 8resulting in a sowing to harvest time of 84 days. Other reports suggest you need 90-95 days to maturity (see following comments).
I have grown Blue Jay for several years with mixed results. Early sown seeds do not always germinate, resulting an incompletely filled row. In 2022 I sowed on May 11 and only 4 of 15 seeds germinated. I then resowed the missing portions of row in mid June and all the seeds germinated. I had similar results in 2023, leading me to think that Blue Jay needs warm soil temperatures to come up. The soil was damp all spring in 2022 but dry in 2023. Perhaps a short (12 hrs) seed presoak might also help. Notably, whether sown in May or mid June the pods more or less ripened at the same time in early September. In my experience early sowing did not result in early maturing of the dry seeds with May sown seeds taking nearly a month longer to produce dry beans than those sown in mid June.
The green pods of Blue Jay are delicious. They come in the form of a thin and delicate French filet type as might be expected having a French parent (Comtesse de Chambord). I have yet to eat the dry beans. They are reported to be thin skinned and quick to cook with a meaty slightly citrusy flavor (http://www.mattcynfarms.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Matt-Cyn-Farms-Dried-Beans.pdf). Blue Jay is suitable for soups and chilis. Blue Jay bean demonstrates that you never know what unexpected crosses may happen when you grow many varieties. Thanks to those such as Russ Crow for spotting new varieties. Thanks also to those such as Shirley Bellows who preserve these rare heritage types and organizations such as Seeds of Diversity who keep seed savers connected. Try Blue Jay in your garden not only for its beautiful colour but for the tasty green and dry beans.