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Horticultural Beans

October 18, 2007

What are horticultural beans? I see some beans with 'horticultural' as part of their varietal name and I see some beans identified as 'horticultural' in their catalog description.

Based on what I've seen or heard recently I'm starting to think horticultural beans are common beans used as shellies and dry soup beans. Is this always the case? Catalog descriptions of horticultural beans sometimes mention using them for green shelling, but not always.

I'm inclined to think that all horticultural beans are shelly beans but not all shelly beans are horticultural beans. What do you think?


Comments (18)

  • zeedman Zone 5 Wisconsin

    "I'm inclined to think that all horticultural beans are shelly beans but not all shelly beans are horticultural beans."

    That pretty much sums it up. In my search for varieties that make good shellies, I have tried quite a few of the "horticultural" beans. They are P. vulgaris varieties, and most have similarities:
    - Usually pole or half-runner
    - Most have flattened pods when green
    - Red or pink striped pods when ripe, turning purplish at prime shelly stage
    - Large to very large seeds with maroon or red streaks over a white or buff background
    - Potato-like flavor as shellies
    - Often, late to mature ("October beans")

    Most of those that I have tried were also good as snaps (some of excellent flavor) but since they are not heavy yielders, they are best left for shelling, either fresh or dry.

    I'm not sure where the term "horticultural" originated in reference to these beans... Gardenlad or Fusion might know the answer to that one. I just eat 'em. ;-) They seem to be nearly identical to the "Borlotto" beans.

  • jimster

    In an attempt to pin down the meaning of 'horticultural bean' I did a Google search and came up with the descriptions below. It would also be helpful to sift out descriptions of individual varieties because those descriptions often contain information about the uses of horticultural beans. For instance, Seed Savers Exchange says that Brockton Horticultural is used only as a dry bean. That conflicts with most other descriptions of horticultural beans. But that isn't surprising because there are many contradictions in bean nomenclature. My question in this case is, "does Brockton Horticultural make a good shelly?". Without more information I will have to grow it to find out.

    Horticultural beans are large-seeded beans used in the green-shell stage. A young horticultural bean cannot be used as a snap bean because the pod fiber is too tough. Harvest when the pods start changing from green to yellow. Both bush and pole type plants are available in a wide range of cultivars. Many or the heirloom varieties are horticultural beans. The seeds can be quite decorative with swirls of color.
    -- Purdue University

    * Dual purpose or horticultural beans:
    * The pods are fairly fleshy and generally edible.
    * the dried seeds may be cooked and typically retain shape fairly well.
    -- Victory Seeds

    Horticultural beans (also called shell, wren's egg, bird egg, speckled cranberry, or October beans) come in both pole and dwarf varieties and can produce big harvests in small gardens. The colorful, mottled pods can be eaten like snap beans when young, but most people prefer to use the rich, nutty, red-speckled seeds, which mature in 65 to 70 days, as fresh shell beans and for canning and freezing. Some Southerners claim horticultural beans are best after the pods begin to turn slightly dry or "shucky."
    -- Mother Earth News

    Horticultural beans, known as shelly or October beans, are grown on a limited acreage in Tennessee. A market for this type of specialty bean is available in many areas of the United States. French Horticultural and ÂTaylors Horticultural have been the primary cultivars grown. These cultivars are characterized by a red striped pod and red striped beans. The seeds are shelled in a relatively soft stage of maturity. The cooked product is somewhat similar to that of Pinto beans.
    -- University of Tennessee

    Shell beans, also called horticultural beans, are harvested when the beans are fully formed in the pods but not dried out.
    -- Salt Spring Seeds

    Horticultural beans confuse everyone. There is no official class of beans that falls into that category, nor have I ever been able to find out what characteristics they share in common. As a rule, horticultural beans are used in the shelly or dry stages. In the south we just call 'em "soup beans."
    -- Garden Lad on Garden Web

    Many Texas home gardeners like to raise horticultural beans such as the Improved Pinto. These are large-seeded beans used in the green-shell stage. The fiber of the bean pod is often too tough for these beans to be cooked as snap beans unless they are picked at a relatively immature stage. These types can usually be recognized by their colorful striped or mottled pods. Some of the more popular varieties are Dwarf Horticultural, Bush Horticultural, and the pole variety King Horticultural.
    -- Texas A&M University


  • jimster


    Shelly Beans - Horticultural or "Shelly beans" are special varieties grown mostly to be shelled out of the pods while the seeds are still moist and tender. The seeds shell out quickly and easily and can be cooked without soaking. You can recognize these beans by the red stripes on the pods and the splashes of red color on the dry seeds. The dry seeds are so colorful that they are often used in craft projects and glued into patterns on boards. You can buy bush or climbing varieties of Shelly beans. Grow enough to freeze and to dry and use in bean soups.
    -- Virginia State University

    When the pods swell but have not yet dried, the beans inside are called horticultural or shelly beans; types usually grown for this stage include flageolet, 'Jacob's Cattle' and cranberry beans. When fully dried, the beans are called dry or soup beans, and well known types are navy beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, and black turtle beans.
    -- Floridata


  • hairymooseknuckles

    Hey Thanks to going to that trouble Jim. I enjoyed the read! I didn't know there was such a thing as Improved Pinto. I had also wondered about the term October Bean.

  • zeedman Zone 5 Wisconsin

    Reading through those references, I find much disagreement - which makes me tend to agree with Gardenlad, they "confuse everyone". Some lump all shellies together as horticultural, regardless of their characteristics. Some seem to refer only to dry beans as horticultural, hence the reference to inedible pods. I lean toward the majority opinion (as expressed by M.E.N. & Virginia State University, among others) that they are a specific class of beans, with recognizable characteristics.

    I especially take exception to those that mention the "inedible pod", since many horticulturals that I tried (as with most shelly types that I tested) have been edible as a snap.

    Of those mentioned, I have tried "Wren's Egg", "Brockton", and "King Horticultural". "Brockton" was one of the earliest, and while it had more of a half-runner habit, it bore heavily. The beans are medium large (somewhere between "Great Northern" & "Red Kidney") and are easy to shell. They all ripened within a short time frame, making them a good choice for canning.

    The flavor as a shelly was good, but I can't remember much detail... it was one of the first shellies that I grew, in 2000. I'll have to grow them again soon to replenish my seed, and I'll be able to better compare them to others that I have grown since.

  • jimster

    I agree with zeedman that the meaning of horticultural beans is confusing and filled with inconsistencies. Here are some examples from the SSE 2007 public catalog:

    re Boston Favorite: "Productive horticultural type. Great dry bean for all types of dishes, especially Boston Baked Beans." Does anyone raise horticultural beans for baked beans?

    re Brockton Horticultural: "Used only as a dry bean, wonderful flavor."

    re Lina Cisco's Bird Egg: "Horticultural type, used as a dry bean."

    re October: No mention of horticultural. "Prolific producer, great winter staple."

    All of the above would lead one to think that the catalog writer considers a horticultural bean to be strictly a dry bean.

    But then there is this:

    re Speckled Cranberry: "Undoubtedly the best of the pole horticultural beans. Produces heavy crops of slender green stringless 7-9"nearly round pods until the first frost. Preferred by some growers as a green shell bean at around 80 days or used as a dry bean if grown to full maturity."

    Also notice that October refers to a variety here, when often it is a synonym for horticultural. Inconsistent indeed.

    Anyway, can anyone verify or refute the statement about Speckled Cranberry being "the best of the pole horticultural beans"? I'm skeptical of that sort of judgement about any bean.


  • jimster

    Here's a theory I'm working on. It has a little evidence to support it, but not much.

    Horticultural beans are (maybe better to say "were") the New Englander's concept of a shelly bean. Most seem to resemble the cranberry bean, which has synonyms like "French Horticultural" if I'm not mistaken. So, my thought is that horticultural beans are a subset of shellies which were grown in New England when that terminology came about. My theory would be supported if documents could be found to show when and where the term was first used.

    What do you think?


  • oldpea

    hairymooseknuckles, Improved Pinto beans have a bland flavor and light soup color, as some folks don't care for a dark soup color.
    The regular Pinto is good as a "string" bean when young and also good as a "green" shell bean.
    When I grow a bean or pea, I like to try both stages.
    I rarely deliberately dry beans/peas for eating since the main reason for me to have a garden is to have fresh vegetables, but sometimes after work, picking vegetables is the last thing I want to do, so, the peas/beans may dry.
    More seed to save....YES!

  • jimster

    The discussion on the thread linked below (whose title does not mention "horticultural") got so heavily into the Horticultural Bean issue that I thought we should revive this one from 2007, if only for cross-referencing. Indeed I had forgotten how deeply we got into that issue until coming back here just now.


  • zeedman Zone 5 Wisconsin

    Darn, who stirred up this hornet's nest again? ;-) I thought I would redirect the "horticultural" discussion here.

    Jimster, in the thread linked to above, you said:
    "I propose that those who are in-the-know revert to the use of the name horticultural as a varietal name and not apply it to other shelly beans."

    I agree that the terms are not interchangeable, and I don't believe anyone has applied "horticultural" to shellies in general. It appears to be a term most used in the New England states, to describe shell beans. I have sometimes used "horticultural-type" to describe the many similar large-seeded beans with a pattern of red stripes over a light background.

    "Shelly" is just a term based upon the stage of maturity at the time of harvest, and shellies can be beans of any class or color. There are some varieties that are better suited to that usage than others, and most are also good as snap, dry, or both. That being said...

    Jimster, I think your crusade is a lost cause. ;-) As you stated, "I thought horticultural beans were a category of beans, and the nomenclature may have evolved to where that is the case.". Regardless of whether there is one true definition of "Horticultural beans", the name has been so widely applied over the years (right or wrong) that it has now become a class.

    If I look in the 2010 SSE Yearbook, there are 14 different "Horticultural" varieties currently listed. Bush: "Dwarf French" (several variations), "Gray's", "Howell's", "New Hampshire", "Robin's Egg", and "Ruby Dwarf". Pole: "Chapman's", "Cranberry", "Keavy", "King", "Orlando Small's", and "Striped". The variety "Cranberry Horticultural" demonstrates the confusion between the two "types".

    There are 17 different varieties listed as "Cranberry", although from reading the descriptions, several appear to be duplicates. The term "cranberry beans" may have also been corrupted over the years, since only the "True Red" variety (which is round, red, & shiny) actually resembles cranberries.

    Many of these beans are heirlooms, and those who named them probably just used the first term that came to mind, then attached their name or region to that. The "classes", IMO, just reflect the most popular original strains at the time, and any beans with similar characteristics were named after them. Chances are that all of these very similar beans (cranberry, horticultural, bird egg, October) share a common ancestry.

  • jimster

    For me, this all started as a simple matter of curiosity about the term horticultural as applied to beans. The original post on this thread states it as well as I am able. The name sounds as if it should have meaning. Upon investigation it has none, at least not a consistent meaning which would make it useful. It means different things at different times and changes from one page to another in some seed catalogs. It's a mess.

    "Jimster, I think your crusade is a lost cause. ;-)"

    I guess we can agree on that. But thanks anyway for helping me flog this dead horse once more. See you next time around . :-)


  • jimster

    To make for easier future reference, I will place a copy of my post re Fearing Burr here:

    "Posted by jimster z7a MA (My Page) on Sun, Apr 11, 10 at 19:35

    In the 1865 Edition of Field and Garden Vegetables of America, published in Boston, Fearing Burr describes in great detail more than 50 varieties of common beans, two thirds of which are bush beans.
    Each description includes comments on the merits of the variety for eating in the pod, green shell and ripe shell stages. I find this interesting because todays seed catalogs very seldom mention the use of common beans in the green shelling stage. Almost no one I know eats shelly beans. There are two exceptions. One is a gardening friend who is a dyed-in-the wool New Englander. The other is also a gardening friend of New England heritage who started cooking shellies a couple of years ago at my suggestion when she had a lot of overgrown bush beans. In Fearing Burrs day however, shelly beans seem to have been a popular food.

    Burr uses the term "horticultural" only as part of the varietal names of two beans, the Dwarf Horticultural Bean and the Horticultural Bean. He never uses horticultural in reference to a class or category of beans.

    Part of Burrs description of Dwarf Horticultural says, "The Dwarf Horticultural Bean is quite productive, and the young pods are tender and of good quality. It is, however, not so generally cultivated for its young pods as for its seeds, which are much esteemed for their mild flavor and farinaceous quality. For shelling in the green state, it is one of the best of the Dwarfs, and deserves cultivation." He describes the appearance of the pods as "green while young, but changing to yellow, marbled and streaked with rose-red, when sufficiently advanced for shelling in their green state." The Horticultural Bean gets a similarly favorable review. I think the high regard attained by those beans gave them the status of models for all shelly type common beans which, in turn, resulted in the use of the term as a category.

    Prior to reading Burrs descriptions, I thought horticultural beans were a category of beans, and the nomenclature may have evolved to where that is the case. But obviously it was not the case 150 years ago. At that time, just about any common bean was a candidate for green shelling. Many, but not all, had the characteristic red markings we now associate with "horticultural" beans but only a couple of varieties were Horticultural Beans. I now believe the current vague usage of that term is just a result of carelessness and waining popularity of common beans in the green shell stage. I propose that those who are in-the-know revert to the use of the name horticultural as a varietal name and not apply it to other shelly beans."


  • dab07

    Oh oh, I think I'm the guilty one who stirred this up. I admit to wondering out loud about it without first doing a search. It's been very interesting though!

  • kittykatz

    I have done a search for New Improved Pinto bean seed. This forum came up. Where in the world can I find these seeds? I have looked all over. We never eat the dry ones anymore as the shelled ones are so much better and they actually cook faster. Thank you

  • jolj

    Are greasy bean of N.C.,Ky., Tenn., shelly beans?

  • happyday

    Joli and Kitty, shelly beans just mean that they are picked and shelled at the peak of ripeness, when the seeds are fat, before they begin to dry down. All beans pass a shelly stage, including greasy beans.

    You will probably not find shelly beans for sale, unless there is a specialty farmers market in your area. Green beans are immmature pods in which the seeds have not yet formed, that's when they are usually picked for market. The shelly stage comes a month of growth later.

    You might find pickled beans or canned kidney beans or something like that in stores, in jars and cans, but if you want fresh shelly beans, you'll probably have to grow your own. So try planting some dried store pintos. The shellies will be about twice the size or more of the dried bean.

  • Elfie Mama

    May I stir this pot one more time? ;-) Here is why I came to this discussion. I have 2 varieties of heirloom beans that I would love to grow this year in fairly close proximity without them (slim as the chance may be) cross pollinating. 1 is Kurzer's Calico Traveler Lima bean, which is listed as Phaseolus Lunatus. The other is the Dolloff Pole bean, listed as Phaseolus Vulgaris. All fine so far BUT the Dolloff description says that it is "a descendant of the hortictural lima bean".
    In addition to the obvious "what IS a horticultural lima bean" (which may or may not have been answered above), *is* it (still) a lima, despite the phaseolus vulgaris designation on the package?
    Does anyone have any ideas?

  • zeedman Zone 5 Wisconsin

    I've grown Dolloff. While the seeds are flat & similar to limas in appearance, it is a common bean, and will not cross with limas. Dolloff is early, highly productive, and a good shelly bean.

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