Cultivated Beans

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Common Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris L.)

Common Bean is a native cultigen of the South and Central American tropics, was the last major crop plant to become established prehistorically in the eastern United States and Midwest. Together with corn and squash, beans formed the triumvirate of Native American gardens—the so-called “Three Sisters”—repeatedly described in the Euroamerican accounts at the time of historic contact.

Spreading first to the American Southwest over 2,000 years ago, it took more than 1,000 years before beans arrived in the Midwest. From one species, hundreds of historic and modern varieties were grown including kidney, lima, pinto, and navy beans. Beans appeared in Iowa as early as A.D. 1250, reported in quantity in Late Prehistoric Glenwood sites in the western part of the state, and rarely in Mill Creek contexts. Beans found in Glenwood lodges are small, about the size of modern navy beans. Beans are also recovered from many Oneota sites including those occupied at the time Europeans first arrived.

Beans added nitrogen to early gardens, enriching the soil for companion plants, particularly corn. Corn stalks in turn offered a support for the bean vines to climb. Together corn and beans alone supplied a diet complete in plant protein. Both could be dried and stored for use throughout the winter and kept as seed for the following year’s crop. Prepared by boiling, parching, frying, and grinding, beans were often cooked with corn, squash, and meat. They were made into soups, cakes, and bread.

Major References

Adair, Mary 2010
Adrain, Tiffany S. 2003
Asch, David L. 1995
Asch, David L. and William Green 1992
Dunne, Michael T. 2006

Map of Iowa with orange dots that indicate prehistoric sites known to have cultivated beans

Iowa Sites
Site Number Major Reference Family Genus and Species Iowa Culture
13AM00 Asch and Green, 1992 LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAE Phaseolus vulgaris O
13AM1 Asch and Green, 1992 LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAE Phaseolus vulgaris O
13AM200 Asch and Green, 1992 LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAE Phaseolus vulgaris O
13AM404 Powell, 2005 LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAE Phaseolus vulgaris O
13BV1 Asch and Green, 1992 LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAE Phaseolus vulgaris MC
13CK21 Asch and Green, 1992 LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAE Phaseolus vulgaris MC
13DM140 Hollinger, 1999 LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAE Phaseolus vulgaris O
13LA1 Hollinger, 2005 LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAE Phaseolus vulgaris O
13LE110 Asch and Green, 1992; Hollinger, 2005; Zalucha, 1999 LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAE Phaseolus vulgaris O
13LO2 Asch and Green, 1992;
Green and Tolmie, 2004
LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAE Phaseolus vulgaris O
13MA207 Asch and Green, 1992 LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAE Phaseolus vulgaris O
13MA209 Asch and Green, 1992 LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAE Phaseolus vulgaris O
13ML00 Asch and Green, 1992 LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAE Phaseolus vulgaris G
13ML12 Adair, 2010 LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAE Phaseolus vulgaris G
13ML121 Asch and Green, 1992 LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAE Phaseolus vulgaris G
13ML124 Asch and Green, 1992 LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAE Phaseolus vulgaris G
13ML126 Asch and Green, 1992 LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAE Phaseolus vulgaris G
13ML129 Asch and Green, 1992 LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAE Phaseolus vulgaris G
13ML138 Asch and Green, 1992 LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAE Phaseolus vulgaris G
13ML139 Asch and Green, 1992 LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAE Phaseolus vulgaris G
13ML175 Adair, 2010 LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAE Phaseolus vulgaris G
13ML176 Asch and Green, 1992 LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAE Phaseolus vulgaris G
13ML361 Green and Billeck, 1993 LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAE Phaseolus vulgaris G
13ML637 Adair, 2010 LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAE Phaseolus vulgaris G
13PM1 Adrain, 2003 LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAE cf. Phaseolus vulgaris MC
13WA2 Asch and Green, 1992 LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAE Phaseolus vulgaris O
13WD8 Asch and Green, 1992; Schroeder, 1995 LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAE cf. Phaseolus vulgaris O

 

Key
G Glenwood
MC Mill Creek
O Oneota

Bean plant photo and beans

Image Credit:
Wendy and Michael Scullin
Tracey Slotta @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
Melanie Riley and Mary Kathryn Rocheford, OSA (map)