Gardening: Time to shop around for pole bean alternative

October 25, 2012

Did you grow Blue Lake pole beans this summer? Did you end up with stringy, flat beans instead of nice tender, plump ones? You aren’t alone. And no one really knows why.

The Blue Lake bean has been a mainstay of both commercial canning production and home vegetable gardens for decades. It was originally cultivated in the Blue Lake District outside Ukiah, Calif., in the early part of the 1900s. By 1923 the bean had found its way to Oregon where researchers refined the hybrid. In 1962, the first commercial stringless variety of Blue Lake was released. Further research created more hybrids and subvarieties with increased yields, disease resistance and adaptability to different climates. It was the bean every other variety was compared to and the most widely sold to home gardeners.

That is until about two years ago. Ed Hume, founder of Ed Hume Seeds in Puyallup, Wash., said gardeners started complaining that their usually reliable Blue Lake pole beans were changing. They were producing flat, tough pods with strings instead of plump, tender, easily snapped beans. Hume and other seed companies thought maybe it was weather-induced issues. Several companies including Hume Seed changed seed growers thinking that would cure the problem.

Not so. Even with new seed suppliers and more rigorous management of the seed crop, the problem persisted. It did not seem to affect the bush Blue Lake varieties; just the pole beans.

With the close of the 2012 growing season, growers and researchers haven’t found a cause. The closest they can guess is that after decades of hybridization, the Blue Lake pole bean is reverting back its original form.

Reversion is not uncommon in plants. It happened to the venerable Oregon Giant pole bean several years ago. Ornamentals such as peonies and shrubs with colored leaves will sometimes revert to another color or put out green leaves. When plant breeders develop new varieties, one of the key things they look for is how stable a new plant’s color, shape and growing habit is over time. Only those that can reliably hold their characteristics make it to market.

The Blue Lake pole bean may be the all-time favorite of many gardeners but it isn’t the only bean out there. Hume suggests trying other varieties such as Kentucky Blue, a cross of Kentucky Wonder and Blue Lake. Kentucky Blue has nice straight pods that mature early on manageable vines. The bean does have a small string but the flavor is comparable to the Blue Lake.

Other alternatives are Cascade Giant and Rattlesnake pole beans. The Cascade Giant is an improved variety of the old Oregon Giant that produces a 7- to 10-inch long pod with purple stripes that disappear with cooking. It does have a string but the buttery flavor more than makes up for that. The Rattlesnake pole bean is very similar to the Cascade Giant. Your last option could just be to plant Blue Lake bush beans that don’t seem to be affected by the problem.

Pat Munts has gardened in the Spokane Valley for more than 35 years. She can be reached at pat@inlandnwgardening.com.


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