Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Snake Beans - Top Plants

Vigna unguiculata
Snake Beans
FABACEAE (formerly LEGUMINOSAE)




Snake beans are another one of those largely overlooked crops that do very well in the sub-tropics but, because people are unfamiliar with them, they just don't grow them - even though they are going to do remarkably better than any other 'traditional' bean through the hot and wet summer months.

You will be familiar with them if you have visited Asia or seen them stacked in bunches in your local Asian grocer - with individual pods anything from 30cm - 1m long!  I first encountered them in Indonesia where they are a staple ingredient of all kinds of stir-fries and curries and taste delicious, buttery, crunchy and sweet.

NOTE: Another top food plant for the sub tropics is amaranth - also used in Asian cooking.

Description
  • These beans grow on a vine that need support.  They are quite vigorous and will get to a height of 2m+.
  • They are an abundant cropper, so 4-5 vines are enough for one family.
  • The beans grow quickly and need to be picked regularly while they are still green - they can go yellowish and tough very quickly.
  • Snake beans are a legume (this means that they fix nitrogen), and are very useful in rotation with hungry plants (like corn, tomatoes and beetroot/carrots) helping to restore depleted soils.


Cultivation
  • I have tried buying snake bean seeds from many sources and not had much luck with them.  I have had my best crop this year with seeds I got from Grace, my egg lady, so my advice is to source seeds locally - and then save some.
  • Plant two seeds about 10cm apart and when they are about 10cm high, snip off the weaker one.  These seeds are best planted straight in the ground.
  • While an all year round crop in the tropics, one crop lasts for about nine months here in the sub tropics, so it's best to plant the seeds when the winter cold is over - in the early springtime and treat it as a warm season crop.  They don't like to dry out.
  • Flowers are in pairs and may be white, mauvish or creamy yellow - so be careful when you are picking the beans not to destroy the ripening pod next to the one your picking,(this is the voice of experience talking!).
FOOD
  • All beans, including snake beans, have good amounts of protein, often 12-20% and have traditionally been an important part of our diet - this is particularly so for vegetarians.  
  • They also contain amino acids, B vitamins, fibre and also vitamin A.
  • Snake beans need to be fresh and lightly cooked.  They have a slightly different flavour and texture and, if like me, you enjoy cooking Asian food including curries or stir fries, then this is the bean for you.


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