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Kitchen Garden: Simon Courtauld. Runner Beans

Blog | By Simon Courtauld | Jun 10, 2024

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The Tradescants, father and son, travelled widely in central America in the 17th century. They brought back, among many other plants, a scarlet-flowering climber which was initially grown for decoration. Then someone discovered that the long pods growing from the plants and replacing the flowers were delicious to eat. And so began people’s long-lasting affair with England’s favourite bean.

I have never come across runner beans elsewhere in Europe, which is not so surprising; other countries do not recognise them in their own languages.

Haricots verts are what we call French beans, whereas runner beans are translated by the French as haricots d’Espagne.

The only possible link between runners and ‘Spanish’ beans is their origin in what was Spanish Mexico. The term haricots d’Espagne in fact refers to climbing French beans or so-called flat beans: as far as I can discover, runner beans are unknown in France. The Spanish call them judias verdes, and the Italians fagiolini, but this is also their word for French or green beans.

This puzzle being not quite solved, it is important to grow runner beans so that they can climb freely, though they may be difficult to pick above two metres.

A wall or tree is suitable, while I erect a sort of wigwam with about ten hazel sticks and one or two beans at the base of each one. If the young plants are loosely tied, they will twine up the sticks more easily (always anticlockwise).

The term ‘scarlet runners’ is rather outdated; many varieties nowadays are white-flowered. I am trying White Lady this year, with edible flowers which can decorate a salad.

The tender plants should not be grown outside until mid-May, when they will need plenty of water to get established. But, once in flower, they should take off.

When the beans start to form in midsummer, they will continue producing long runners for up to three months. Having runner beans with every meal may become a bit repetitive, but they freeze well, and a dish of these beans with onions, garlic, tomatoes and mashed chickpeas makes a welcome change.