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Might Be Time to Give Limas Another Chance

Do childhood memories of mealy lima beans cause you to purse your lips in displeasure? Sampling the freshly picked variety might just help you to think more kindly of this versatile vegetable.

The lima bean, as its name indicates, has its origins in South America. It was highly prized by the pre-Columbian inhabitants of Peru, who, among other historic legacies, gave the Western world the potato. The bean is a variant of the sieva, or civet, bean and usually grows on low, leafy bushes rather than on a vine like its cousins the flat lima and Prize Winner lima.

“In the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, Fordhook lima beans were very important in commerce,” said Charles Ledgerwood, a purveyor of seeds to North County farmers and back-yard gardeners for 58 years. “We used to sell 2,000 pounds of seed at a time and ship them everywhere. I don’t know why demand isn’t stronger.”

The lima’s fall from grace could be that shelling the bean, a labor-intensive activity, takes more time than folks have to spare today. Or that the frost-less land required for farming has been given over to construction.

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In earlier years, Ledgerwood recalled, a number of local farmers dry-farmed the bean--using practically no water--in the depths of summer and harvesting them in early winter.

“This type of farming is a lost art,” said the octogenarian businessman, who remembers the days 60 years ago when the Fordhook seeds cost 14 cents a pound in bulk sacks of 100 pounds. “Today, they cost $4.75 a pound, and we have a terrible time even finding any.”

Ledgerwood holds the Prize Winner, a lima bean with pods measuring up to 8 inches, in high esteem. “It grows on a tall trellis,” he said, “but most people consider it well worth the effort.”

The Fordhook lima is one the main crops of Fallbrook grower Margie Oakes. “I like to stick with a winner,” she said, surveying the fertile acreage of her farm. “Lima beans have become big business for us. Some of our customers buy 12 pounds at a time.”

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Her plantings now extend over several hundred rows, creating a gray-green carpet alongside her grove of California live oaks. Hundreds of leafy bushes, dotted with tiny white flowers, also bear the distinctly broad, curled-up pods. Each one contains several tender green beans, which Oakes, recalling childhood memories of forced lima bean feedings, prefers to eat uncooked.

“I can only eat them raw,” she said, recalling with a note of embarrassment the hours spent refusing to eat a plateful of the boiled beans. This doesn’t prevent her from extolling the virtues of her freshly picked beans, however.

Knee-deep among the bushes, Oakes picked a pod off the vine and popped it open to reveal four small, pale green, kidney-shaped beans. The taste of the flavorful raw vegetable bears little or no resemblance to the taste of processed varieties more commonly available in supermarkets. “After many of our customers try them for the first time, they come back for more,” she said.

Oakes links her plantings to customer request. “I space the plantings every 10 days,” she said, adding that it takes 120 days for the bean to grow to maturity. Her schedule will allow her to harvest a fresh supply of beans until the first freeze.

Oakes, who uses no pesticides, is among a handful of farmers in North County who enjoy a steady water supply from a private well. “I couldn’t do this if I had to pay for the water,” she said.

When buying lima beans, choose crisp, firm pods. Rubbery pods have been on the shelf too long. Oakes just snaps open the pod and picks out the beans. A knife may sometimes be necessary for opening. To enjoy the fullest flavor of fresh lima beans, eat them as soon as possible after they are picked. Fresh lima beans can be eaten raw, lightly boiled, pureed or used in soups.

Charles Ledgerwood, Reliable Seeds, 3862 Carlsbad Blvd., Carlsbad 92008. (619) 729-3282. Seeds are $4.50 a pound.

Margie Oakes, Oakes Knoll Ranch, P.O. Box 252, Fallbrook 92028. (619) 728-9158. Sells only at Vista Farmers Market. Fresh beans $1.20 a pound. Phone orders accepted on Fridays for Saturday market delivery.

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