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Fava Bean -- Broad Bean



Mature Field Bean pods

Vicia faba
Scientific classification
Binomial name
Vicia faba

Vicia faba, the Broad Bean, Fava Bean, Faba Bean, Horse Bean, Field Bean or Tic Bean is a species of bean (Fabaceae) native to north Africa and southwest Asia, and extensively cultivated elsewhere. Although usually classified in the same genus Vicia as the vetches, some botanists treat it in a separate monotypic genus as Faba sativa Moench.

Broad Beans in the pod
Broad Beans in the pod

It is a rigid, erect plant 0.5-1.7 m tall, with stout stems with a square cross-section. The leaves are 10-25 cm long, pinnate with 2-7 leaflets, and of a distinct glaucous grey-green colour; unlike most other vetches, the leaves do not have tendrils for climbing over other vegetation. The flowers are 1-2.5 cm long, with five petals, the standard petal white, the wing petals white with a black spot, and the keel petals white. The fruit is a broad leathery pod, green maturing blackish-brown, with a densely downy surface; in the wild species, the pods are 5-10 cm long and 1 cm diameter, but many modern cultivars developed for food use have pods 15-25 cm long and 2-3 cm thick. Each pod contains 3-8 seeds; round to oval and 5-10 mm diameter in the wild plant, usually flattened and up to 20-25 mm long, 15 mm broad and 5-10 mm thick in food cultivars.

Cultivation and uses

Broad Beans have a long tradition of cultivation in old world agriculture, being among the most ancient plants in cultivation and also among the easiest to grow. It is believed that along with lentils and chickpeas, they became part of the eastern Mediterranean diet in around 6000 BC. They still extensively grown for their edible seeds and young pods, as a cover crop, and for animal feed.

In much of the world, the name Broad Bean is used for the large-seeded cultivars grown for human food, while Horse Bean and Field Bean refer to cultivars with smaller, harder seeds (more like the wild species) used for animal feed, though their stronger flavour is preferred in some human food recipes, such as falafel. The term Fava Bean (from the Italian name fava) is commonly used in the United States (especially for beans grown for human consumption), but is also seen elsewhere, especially in Mediterranean recipes (this language shift can also be seen in the common use of the term "Arugula" in the US for what in the UK is called "Rocket").

Broad Beans are eaten while still young and tender, enabling harvesting to begin as early as the middle of spring for plants started under glass or over-wintered in a protected location, but even the maincrop sown in early spring will be ready from mid to late summer. Horse Beans, left to mature fully, are usually harvested in the late autumn.

Broad Beans are rich in tyramine, and thus should be avoided by those taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors. They contain vicine and convicine, which can induce hemolytic anemia in patients with glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency (G6PD). This condition, which is quite common in certain ethnic groups, is called "favism".

In ancient Greece and Rome, beans were used in voting; a white bean being used to cast a yes vote, and a black bean for no. Pythagoras called on his disciples to abstain from beans. It is, however, uncertain whether they were meant to abstain from eating beans or from involving themselves in politics.

Plate showing Broad Beans, from Thomé, Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz, 1885.
Plate showing Broad Beans, from Thomé, Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz, 1885.

In Italy, Broad Beans are traditionally sown on November 2, All Souls Day, and are thus known as the Beans of the Dead. According to tradition, Sicily once experienced a failure of all crops other than the beans; the beans kept the population from starvation, and thanks were given to Saint Joseph. Broad beans subsequently became traditional on Saint Joseph's Day altars in many Italian communities. Some people carry a broad bean for good luck; some believe that if one carries a broad bean, one will never be without the essentials of life.

Broad Beans are mentioned in a famous line from the movie Silence of the Lambs, when Hannibal Lecter says "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti".

In ancient Greece and Rome, beans were used and as a food for the dead, such as during the annual Lemuria festival. In some folk legends, such as in Estonia and the common Jack and the Beanstalk story, magical beans grow tall enough to bring the hero to the clouds. The Grimm Brothers collected a story in which a bean splits its sides laughing at the failure of others. Dreaming of a bean is sometimes said to be a sign of impending conflict, though others said that they caused bad dreams. Pliny claimed that they acted as a laxative. European folklore also claims that planting beans on Good Friday or during the night brings good luck.

The name and modern term Fabian derives from this bean.


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