Monday, May 14, 2012

No Day Without Fabae

I was just driving out of a garden store the other day. I’d just purchased three new dill plants to add to those Brigitte had already coaxed into early rising in small pots. We are preparing the nectar for the butterflies. As luck would have it—and as a kind of underlining of our own current concerns—came a story, just then, on the radio, about Thomas Jefferson’s great gardens at Monticello, which have been reconstituted, as it were. Jefferson ate little meat and, a passionate grower, cultivated 330 vegetable varieties. Brigitte has always been of the same bent and persuasion, and I am, as it were, her acolyte. Our diet is quite Jeffersonian. No day without fabae in our house. The word is Latin for beans.

Beans came to mind yesterday as I was having my usual vegetable soup for lunch which—along with peas, carrots, broccoli, celery, leeks, and such—always has one or two varieties of beans. It suddenly occurred to me that, though I eat them daily, I’d no idea how beans grow in the garden. In fact, such is my ignorance, briefly I imaged them sort of clustering, out in the open in bunches, like grapes—but that thought didn’t last. My next notion was: Surely they must grow in pods, like peas. Confirming that impression was that green beans, so called, do, don’t they, suggest that those longish green things have something inside them—but we don’t bother shelling them out. Right on. And the suspicion that then arose simultaneously, that peas might also be beans, also turned out to be right. Great idea for an acolyte’s research. I set to work.

Looking at nature counters the harm produced by looking at humanity. Beans belong to the Kingdom of Plantae (no surprise there). Next they are members of the Order of Fabales, the flowering plants. Within that order they belong to the Family of Fabaceae, called the legumes. That last word already tells the acolyte a lot if he bothers to trace the roots of that word. It comes from the Latin legere, to gather—thus to gather into pods. Those pods, it turns out, are the ovaries that develop in the center of the flowers. They emerge from the bloom itself and then, as this “pregnancy” advances, although the babies resting in the ovum are actually just seeds, the object becomes very large and long: the pod.

As my diagram shows, quite a rich array of protein-rich edible plants come from this family, including my most favorite foods: peas, beans, lentils, and peanuts. It surprised me to discover licorice and alfalfa in this tribe. Licorice, however, yields a flavor and it is the alfalfa plant itself, not its beans, that are the mainstay of livestock diets; both plants, however, feature, like the others, seeds that are gathered into pods.

My illustration is from Wikipedia (link) and shows the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris). Phaseolus is the Greek for kidney-bean.

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