Tiny gifts can bring huge surprises. Let me tell you about an incredible bean with a 70-year history on Canada’s Vancouver Island… a story of saving and growing bean seeds in one community for decades and an excellent example of the “Many eggs in many baskets” principle of our Crop-climate project.
Many people immigrated from Europe to Canada following the upheavals of World War II. They brought their cultural practices with them or found and joined communities of similar backgrounds. Familiar foods and vegetable and flower gardens were central elements of these cultural practices. Among these immigrants was the family of the late Paul Pezel whose mother first came to Montreal from the former Yugoslavia and then moved to Vancouver Island where Paul’s father worked in the coal mines in Cumberland. Paul’s parents, as was the practice of so many working families in the mines, established productive gardens in their new homes. By the 1950’s, according to Paul’s wife Colleen, Paul’s mother grew a particular heritage bean they called “Italian Romano”. Where the family obtained the bean is not known. Perhaps it came from Montreal, perhaps from family sources in the “old country” or perhaps from earlier European immigrants already in Cumberland. The most important point is that this particular bean has been grown on Vancouver Island since at least the 1950’s, saved from seed, year after year and evolving and adapting to local climatic and garden conditions for almost seven decades.
Paul Pezel continued growing this bean, taking it with him and eventually settling in Qualicum Beach where he became a high school teacher. Paul gave bean seeds to Graham Beard a newly-arrived high school science teacher. Graham has grown this remarkable bean in Qualicum Beach now for nearly half a century since 1974! About five years ago, Graham, passed bean seeds to me when he heard of my interest in preserving heritage potatoes and about our Crop-Climate project. Graham has been sharing the bean widely for years on the island because of its excellent qualities.
What is so special about this bean then? First this variety is a classic example of community biodiversity conservation and development! After 70 years of year-to-year planting and seed saving, it is no longer the same as the original bean of nearly 70 years ago. It is now a Vancouver Island bean perfectly suited to the region’s climate. Second it produces masses of delicious green beans over several weeks, and dried beans for many uses such as soups. Third the plant grows to enormous heights, the tallest of all common bean varieties I have ever raised, surely a relative of Jack-in-the Bean-Stalk’s mythical monster plant!
Pezel’s Giant bean, as I will call it, is a typical pole bean requiring a pole or a fence to climb. I have seen it reach into the lower branches of a tall fruit tree and climb to 5 m high. Graham Beard had it grow to similar heights on poles in his garden then climbing into a tree. Remarkably Graham recalls that plants reached more than 20’ (6.5m) high in Paul’s garden. Paul routinely used a tall picking ladder to reach the highest beans at these dizzying heights.
Pezel’s Giant bean grows quickly from seed and begins setting flowers on the lower part of the stem less than a metre from the ground. As it reaches 2 metres, more and more flowers appear, and green pods develop then colour up with purple markings. (Figure 1). Near the end of the vine the pods occur in large clusters often well clear of the leaves so that they are easy to pick. Pods stay green and tender for several weeks on the vines, filling slowly with seed. My pods grow about 10 (9-12) cm (4”) long, each one producing on average 5 (4-6) seeds. Young developing pods are almost stringless and strings develop slowly as the pod matures. The pod flavour is sweet and “beany”.
In 2021 I grew only a 1.2 m row that yielded 0.5 kg of fresh green beans and .33kg of dried beans (yield =.28kg/m)
Pods firm up and turn hard protecting 4-6 attractive seeds inside. The beans are artfully marked in purple speckles reflecting the outside markings on the pods. Graham Beard harvests green beans in July from a late May planting. Dry beans are ready to harvest by mid September (from mid May planting) on the Saanich Peninsula in Victoria. They hold well until the rains start in late September to early October.
Growing the beans is easy. You do not need a large surface area rather you need height for the vines to stretch for the sky and the sun. The lower portions of the stalk are not particularly leafy so you can plant them between low-growing plants. Any good garden soil will do, but Graham makes a fresh compost each year of coffee grinds, house organics and wood ash mixed. He even burns occasional bones in his enclosed fireplace to add nutrients. Using this approach to soil enrichment and renewal, he is able to grow these beans for many years in the same place. I add wood ash and dolomite into my soil. Regular watering is helpful, but Pezel’s Giant beans are not water demanding in my experience.
According to Graham, Paul Pezel used 20’ (6.5m) poles for the stalks to climb. Graham finds small dead saplings in the woods (western redcedar or Douglas-fir work on the Vancouver Island), cuts the branches short to provide supports for the climbing vine and buries the lower part in the ground. I have used a pole tipi about one and a half metre across at the base and 2.5 m tall. Some years I use pieces of wire fencing about 2m tall but the vines always grow well beyond this level and bunch up sideways along the tops of the fencing.
Growing 20’ bean plants is lots of fun to begin with, however the reward is in the eating. Both the Pezel family and Graham Beard boiled the beans to eat, but steaming works equally well. Paul Pezel and his family had enough beans every year so that they were able to can them in jars for the winter. I confess, I did not know that Pezel beans were for eating fresh when I received them though I did eventually do so. Instead, I grew them for dried beans. They are delicious in soups and who knows what other bean dishes they would do well in. So is the Pezel Giant bean something already well known? Is it really an “Italian Romano” bean as recalled by Colleen Pezel? It certainly has some Italian Romano characteristics, some Romano beans being speckled. However, many modern Romano bean pods are flattened, Pezel beans pods are rounded. Most Romano beans are red speckled, Pezel beans are purple speckled. Romano beans grow tall but none that I know of grow to 20’. And whatever their source these giant beans have bean conserved and grown on their own for nearly 70 years and perhaps more on Vancouver Island. They certainly are a heritage bean and their origins may well be Mediterranean. But today they are Vancouver Island’s own bean variety an example of crop biodiversity, and a wonderful demonstration of the “many eggs in many baskets” principle of local variety adaptation and food sustainability for the challenges of climate change.