6 Gorgeous Heirloom Bean Varieties You Need for 2016

Right now is a great time to eat more pulses, but don't think that means the same old lentils and kidney beans.

Heirloom Beans
Scarlet Runner Beans. Photo: © Laszlo Podor Photography / Getty Images

As you may know, the UN General Assembly has declared 2016 the “International Year of the Pulses.” Pulses are grain legumes like lentils, chickpeas, dry peas and dry beans. What’s so great about them? Well, according to the Global Pulse Federation, they’re a great source of protein, fiber and vitamins. They’re also good for the planet: Growing one pound of pulses takes 43 gallons of water, whereas one pound of soy takes 216 gallons and one pound of beef takes over 1,000 gallons. And, unlike many other plants, pulses are “nitrogen fixers.” This means they are able to draw nitrogen out of the air and put it into the soil in the form of “nitrogen nodules” on their roots. Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for plants, so fixing is vital for soil and crop health.

So yes, pulses are great and we should all eat them, but don’t think you’re stuck with plain old lentils and kidney beans. Companies like Rancho Gordo, Zürsun Idaho Heirloom Beans and North Bay Trading Co. are selling heirloom beans, which are grown from seeds that have been handed down through generations and preserved for distinctive traits like looks or taste. The results can be uniquely delicious and even beautiful. While many of the skin markings and patterns fade in the cooking process, heirloom beans are still a delicious way to enrich your diet and encourage sustainable farming. Here are 6 stunning varieties to look out for.

Christmas Lima

Heirloom Beans
Christmas Lima Beans. © Laura Berman / Design Pics / Getty Images

© Laura Berman / Design Pics / Getty Images

Yes, they’re lima beans, but with their red Rorschach-like markings, christmas limas (also called chestnut limas or calico beans) are some of the most beautiful legumes around. They’re large like standard limas, but have a bold, chestnut flavor. They’re perfect for hearty winter soups, stews and gratins. $5.95 for 1 lb., ranchogordo.com.

Scarlet Runner

Heirloom Beans
Scarlet Runner Beans. © Laszlo Podor Photography / Getty Images

© Laszlo Podor Photography / Getty Images

Scarlet runner beans (also called Oregon lima bean, aycoctl, ayocote) are native to Central America. They are versatile and can be cooked in a variety of different dishes. They are excellent for salads, but take on a luscious, creamy texture when long-cooked in stews and soups. $5.95 for 1 lb., ranchogordo.com.


Heirloom Beans
Borlotti Beans. © alle12 / Getty Images

© alle12 / Getty Images

The colorful borlotti (also called cranberry or romano) is a variety of common bean that’s popular in Italy. The beans have a nutty flavor and create a rich, starchy broth when cooked. Use them for soups, sauces and refried beans, where their velvety texture can really shine. $5.95 for 1 lb., ranchogordo.com.


Heirloom Beans
Appaloosa Beans. © Sue Ding / iStock

© Sue Ding / iStock

The appaloosa bean has a slightly elongated shape and is actually a cross between a red kidney bean and a pinto bean. Its name comes from its distinctive duotone markings, which resemble the majestic Appaloosa ponies of the Nez Perce tribe of the Pacific Northwest. They can be used in salads, or classic stewed dishes like Drunken Beans. $9.28 for 1 lb., northbaytrading.com.


Heirloom Beans
Vaquero Beans. © Steve Sando / Rancho Gordo

© Steve Sando / Rancho Gordo

It’s not difficult to see why this striking, monochromatic variety is sometimes known as “orca” (though this term can refer to other black-and-white varieties, such as calypso, as well). They’re on the smaller side, similar to black beans, and hold their shape well in cooking. They have a light flavor and their black spots make a delicious, black, inky broth. They’re perfectly suited to chilis and stews, but can be used in soups and salads as well. $5.95 for 1 lb., ranchogordo.com.


Heirloom Beans
Anasazi Beans. © Paul Grossmann / Getty Images

© Paul Grossmann / Getty Images

Anasazi beans are closely related to vaqueros and named for the Native American tribe that first cultivated them. They are similar in size and shape to a small pinto bean, with maroon and white skins that turn pink during cooking. Frequently used in Southwestern and Latin cuisines, they are a natural choice for refried or baked beans.$5.06 for 1 lb., northbaytrading.com.

For more information about heirloom plants and seeds, check out seedsavers.org.

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