Saturday, January 06, 2007

Magic Seeds

Last spring, I found a packet of seeds in a local nursery. The seeds were from Renee’s Garden. I’ve always liked Renee’s Garden seeds because the information included is so thorough and well written, but mostly because the illustrations are generally done like botanical drawings.

We planted a few of the magic black bean seeds in one of the raised beds in the veggie garden, next to seeds of a tried-and-true purple Japanese eggplant that tastes as good as it looks, and purple sweet peppers – a purple garden. Sadly, the unseasonably dry heat and the pests that thrived in it deterred the eggplant and nibbled the peppers to an untimely end. But the bean vine put on a show that lasted from March 2006 through the this past week, when I finally pulled out the remaining vines that had succumbed to an unusual frost.

Before I discovered Renee’s seeds last spring, I had never heard of these magic beans or the plant they produce. The description from the Renee’s Garden seed packet says: “Exotic and tropical-looking Hyacinth Bean vines flaunt gorgeious sprays of amethyst and violet blossoms, borne on striking purple stems throughout warm summer weather. The rich hued flowers mature into shiny, flat 3 inch pods that hand like purple patent leater ornaments against the dense canopy of twining foliage. These show-stopping climbers win the admiring attention of all our garden visitors.”

The plant was intended as an ornamental, and it lived up to the description above. At first, we didn’t identify it with a sign. However, it upstaged even the giant sunflowers and rambling and productive summer squash vines, and so many visitors asked about it that we made a sign using the seed packet description, and a scanned image from the seed packet. Although we identified it as ornamental, a visitor from the Philippines told one garden volunteer that he had eaten it as a child, picked when the beans were young and tender and stir-fried with other vegetables – as you would with snow peas.

January is the dream and plan time of the year, when I spend winter afternoons with seed catalogs. Although I’d never heard of this plant before last year, I have noticed it several different catalogs this year, under several different names. I salvaged the last of the dried bean pods and the worn out and weathered sign just this week.

Burpee calls it Dolichos Lablab Violet and identifies it as a heirloom. Together with Renee’s Garden, Park Seeds identifies the seeds as Hyacinth Bean or Dolichos lablab. Furthermore, Park says it is “An Edible Ornamental!“ Select Seeds helpfully provides pronunciation: DOLL-ee-kos, and says it was introduced from Egypt in the early 19th century. Dave’s Garden says the seed is poisonous if ingested, and provides a more complete naming convention: “Family: Papilionaceae (puh-pil-ee-uh-NAY-see-ay) (Info), Genus: Lablab (LAB-lab) (Info), Species: purpureus (pur-PUR-ee-us) (Info).”

Whether or not it is edible, and whether or not you would describe its multicolokred flowers as violet, lavender or lilac, it’s not a plant to use where you want it to blend in unobtrusively. We have carefully harvested dried beans, shelled them and preserved the seeds. It will be back in our veggie garden this summer – together with a new sign. Apart from it’s non-stop show of beauty, who can resist a plant whose names sounds like “blab blab”?

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