What do fagiolo, feijao, fasole, frijol, and fasoulia have in common? They’re all names of Phaseolus vulgaris, or the common bean. Haricot, kidney, pinto, navy, black, and other beans are all cultivars of this species. Native to Latin America, the nutritious and protein-rich common bean has made itself at home in cuisines everywhere. In addition to common beans, a wide variety of legumes with edible seeds, or pulses, are found in nearly every region of the world, from favas and lentils in the Mediterranean to cowpeas in Africa and soybeans in Asia.
Three Is Not a Crowd
Bean plants are able to benefit neighboring plants nearby through a special symbiotic relationship they have with Rhizobia, a soil bacteria that takes nitrogen gas from the air and traps it in the soil in a form that plants can use like fertilizer. Corn and other grains need nitrogen-rich soil to grow and thrive, making beans and corn a perfect pair. Native peoples of ancient Mesoamerica discovered this important relationship, growing corn and beans together, often with low-growing squash to help crowd out weeds. This crop system, which has been known by many names, including the “three sisters” or la milpa, was the backbone of many Indigenous diets before colonization, and continues to be important today.
Plants as Protein
The humble bean is a nutritional powerhouse, providing vital amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) such as lysine, isoleucine, and tryptophan that are hard to find in plant-based foods. When combined with grains like corn or rice, the nutrients in these plants can provide a complete protein, critical for providing an energy source to the human diet. Protein-rich beans are the basis for many important meat substitutes around the world, from tofu to black bean burgers.
Check out these fun facts about beans!
- Beans belong to the legume family, which is one of the biggest plant families in the world and includes many other edible legumes, from fava beans to peanuts.
- National Bean Day is January 6.
- The world’s tallest bean plant was over 45 feet and grown in the U.S.!
- North Dakota is the capital of bean production in the United States, producing one-third of the nation’s beans.