a (botanical) mystery

I’m puzzled. Last year I grew three varieties of Italian pole beans. (Some years I find myself on Commercial Drive in late winter and the Home Hardware there has an amazing selection of Italian seeds. Not the McKenzie Gusto ones — though maybe they have those too — but Larosa Emanuele, from Bari. It’s hard to resist the beautiful packages which contain more seeds by far than their North American counterparts and are cheap to boot.) I planted a romano type, “Smeraldo”, a long green one called “Nano Fin de Bagnols” which is sort of like a French filet, and “Trionfo Violetta”. I’ve grown these before but last year’s crop was astonishing and as well as pickling and freezing many pounds of beans, I left some on the vines to mature so I could dry them for seed. I didn’t keep them separate because quite honestly I love them all and didn’t mind them climbing the poles together and providing many pickings of all three varieties. The seeds were different, though — some of them brown, some of them white. (And true to my careless nature, I didn’t keep track of which was which. More on this in a moment.)

When I planted my beans, I put a selection under each pole of the teepees I’d erected in the bed I call “Wave”. Nice deep soil, well-nourished with compost, mushroom manure, alfalfa pellets, a handful of kelp meal, and a handful of lime. The slugs were around as the seeds were germinating so I had to keep poking in more seeds to compensate for the sad little sprouts with the tell-tale silver trail leading away from them. And then it got warm and the plants went crazy. For the past two weeks, I’ve been picking colanders most days. And they’re delicious. But here’s the puzzle:

beansToday’s picking is unnusual in that there’s actually a green romano bean in the lot. Every other picking has been exclusively purple. I’d say that the mix I saved was about equal parts two greens — the long filets and the romano-type — and one part “Trionfo Violetta”. I am no botanist but I believe (and please please someone tell me if I’m wrong) that beans are almost entirely self-pollinating, that by the time the beautiful flowers open, they have pollinated themselves (the anthers are pushed up against the stigma inside the unopened flower), and that cross-pollination is very rare.

So why are my beans all purple? All of three kinds were vigorous last year. I saved seed from good strong pods and all the beans were dried on newspaper on my kitchen floor in exactly the same way. I don’t actually mind. These beans are fabulous. (Favourite way to eat them is steamed briefly, cooled, tossed with hazelnut oil and lemon juice, some clipped tarragon and chives, and then some toasted chopped hazelnuts over top.)

A few years ago I visited Mendel’s monastery in Brno and should have paid more attention to the details of his genetic experiments. Instead, I pushed my face against the case of his pruning tools — so elegant and so well-cared for — and looked for ages at the detailed notes he kept about weather. Walking through the garden, I kept imagining him with his magnificent patience and attentive mind, I kept wondering about his life, and, well, let’s just say it was an opportunity lost. I found out just how little I’d paid attention when I was trying to write about genetics in my “Euclid’s Orchard” essay this past year.


6 thoughts on “a (botanical) mystery”

  1. I couldn’t resist a post entitled Botanical Mystery. The seeds you saved from the hybrid varieties have most likely reverted back to a parent variety. Interesting that they are almost all the same though. Perhaps, too, only one type of seed germinated.

    Your anecdote about Brno–so many times, I’ve wished I’d paid more attention in similar situations. Those pruning tools would have held me under their spell too.

  2. Yes, I guess I know it’s not that much of a mystery. But I remember how strong last year’s vines were, all of them, and how it seems that only (apart from one or two exceptions) the purple ones were successful this year. Of course I’ll save some of them and see what happens next year. I’ve noticed how my kale has intermarried and some of the offspring are quite lovely. A bit like their parents but not entirely. And quite suited to my garden, which is the whole point, I guess! Thanks for your comment, Chris.

    1. It’s one of the rewards of growing things from seed–you never know quite what you’ll get. But then I’ve had interesting results from cuttings too, like the climbing roses I grew from a piece I received from my father, who grew his roses from roots taken from my grandmother’s garden. The originals were a deep red, my father’s roses a dewy deep pink, and mine produced pale pink flowers with white splashes at the base of the petals. My best tomatoes are always the ones, now in their 14th or 15th generation, that I grow from seed I’ve saved from the year before. I’ve no idea what they were originally, because they came from seeds a neighbour gave me. I’m sure they are a distinct species now.

      1. I think plants are much more sensitive (or maybe adaptable) to different places than we give them credit for! I’ve found that too with roses. You take a cutting and it becomes quite different when it grows in your own soil, in your own weather. My New Dawns are paler than the plant I took cuttings from. And one of my deep pink moss roses sent up a cane with light pink flowers!

  3. I love that small Home Hardware on Commercial Drive! When I was looking for an “authentic” set of bocce balls, they were my first (& last) stop (also a good source for Bag Balm…)

    1. Yes, a wonderful place, isn’t it? (A great selection of paella pans.) We bought our wheelbarrow there in 1980 or 81, a big deep one, which was used to mix ALL the concrete for our house footings. With a shovel. Imagine being that young and energetic. Also imagine the muscles. Oh, and quilting shops are a good source for Bag Balm too!

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