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 NumberMajor ReferenceFamilyGenus and SpeciesIowa Culture
13AM00Asch and Green, 1992LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAEPhaseolus vulgarisO
13AM1Asch and Green, 1992LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAEPhaseolus vulgarisO
13AM200Asch and Green, 1992LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAEPhaseolus vulgarisO
13AM404Powell, 2005LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAEPhaseolus vulgarisO
13BV1Asch and Green, 1992LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAEPhaseolus vulgarisMC
13CK21Asch and Green, 1992LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAEPhaseolus vulgarisMC
13DM140Hollinger, 1999LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAEPhaseolus vulgarisO
13LA1Hollinger, 2005LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAEPhaseolus vulgarisO
13LE110Asch and Green, 1992; Hollinger, 2005; Zalucha, 1999LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAEPhaseolus vulgarisO
13LO2Asch and Green, 1992;
Green and Tolmie, 2004
LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAEPhaseolus vulgarisO
13MA207Asch and Green, 1992LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAEPhaseolus vulgarisO
13MA209Asch and Green, 1992LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAEPhaseolus vulgarisO
13ML00Asch and Green, 1992LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAEPhaseolus vulgarisG
13ML12Adair, 2010LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAEPhaseolus vulgarisG
13ML121Asch and Green, 1992LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAEPhaseolus vulgarisG
13ML124Asch and Green, 1992LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAEPhaseolus vulgarisG
13ML126Asch and Green, 1992LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAEPhaseolus vulgarisG
13ML129Asch and Green, 1992LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAEPhaseolus vulgarisG
13ML138Asch and Green, 1992LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAEPhaseolus vulgarisG
13ML139Asch and Green, 1992LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAEPhaseolus vulgarisG
13ML175Adair, 2010LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAEPhaseolus vulgarisG
13ML176Asch and Green, 1992LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAEPhaseolus vulgarisG
13ML361Green and Billeck, 1993LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAEPhaseolus vulgarisG
13ML637Adair, 2010LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAEPhaseolus vulgarisG
13PM1Adrain, 2003LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAEcf. Phaseolus vulgarisMC
13WA2Asch and Green, 1992LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAEPhaseolus vulgarisO
13WD8Asch and Green, 1992; Schroeder, 1995LEGUMINOSAE or FABACEAEcf. Phaseolus vulgarisO

 

Key
GGlenwood
MCMill Creek
OOneota

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)