Broad Beans (Vicia faba)

Grown side by side with bush or pole beans, it’s easy to see that broad beans are botanically quite different. Traditionally, broad beans have been grouped in the genus Vicia, which represents the vetches. Some biologists feel that it is botanically unique enough to warrant its own genus, and have proposed changing the Latin name to Faba faba.

Broad beans, or fava beans, (some folks call them “faba”) grow upright on bulkier stalks than green beans. The stems are square in cross section, and can be grown as tall as 1.7m (5’), though they’re usually shorter in northern gardens. This is one of the first agricultural crops in history, dating back to 6000 BCE, or earlier when it was grown along side chickpeas and lentils in the Mediterranean region.

Broad beans are likely the easiest garden vegetable to grow, and they’re a good variety for introducing children to gardening—though they may not be as much of a hit with a lot of kids at dinner time. These beans overwinter well in coastal gardens, and are commonly grown as a cover crop to prevent winter soil erosion as well as to fix nitrogen in the soil for spring planting. If started in early spring, the crop will be ready to harvest by late summer.

Like other legumes, broad beans have no cholesterol, almost no fat content, and they’re rich in protein. They also contain a substance called L-dopa which is used in treatments for Parkinson’s disease, and is thought to increase human libido. Broad beans contain another substance called tyramine, which must be avoided by people using the anti-depressant drug group known as MAO inhibitors.

In parts of Italy, broad beans are still sown on All Souls Day (November 2nd), and are known locally as the Beans of the Dead. It is said that Sicily once suffered a horrible famine in a year when broad beans were the only crop for the people to stave off starvation. Thanks are given to given to St. Joseph for this miracle, and broad beans often adorn Italian altars on St. Joseph’s Day. Elsewhere, it is considered good luck to carry a broad bean in your pocket to ensure that you will never be without the essentials of life.

How to Grow Broad Beans: 

Difficulty: Easy. Only recommended for larger containers.

Timing: sow October/November in mild winter areas. Sow February to May in other areas. Tall soft plants won’t withstand winter well.

Sowing: Set seed 5-10cm (2-4”) deep, 15cm (6”) apart in double rows 23cm (9”) apart. Each set of double rows should be 1m (3’) apart.

Soil: Enrich the soil with compost. Use a broad bean inoculant to provide a source of nitrogen. Aim for a slightly acid soil with a pH of 6.0-6.8.

Growing: Keep overwintered plants weeded. Provide stakes or strings between the rows to stop plants from falling over. When black aphids appear in May/June, pinch off the growing tips on which the aphids feed. Spray with blasts of water to dislodge the aphids.

Harvest: Pick when the pods begin to droop from the weight of the seeds. Shell (like peas) and cook or use in soup. For dried beans, wait until the pots start to shrivel. Note: some people are highly allergic to broad beans (and broad bean pollen). This condition, known as favism, can cause muscle weakness, paralysis, and even death. Favism is an inherited disorder.

Storage: Refrigerated in relatively high humidity, unshelled broad beans have a shelf life of 1-2 weeks.

Seed info: In optimum conditions at least 80% of seeds will germinate. Usual seed life: 2-3 years.

Growing for seed: Isolate each variety by 2km (1 mile) — traditional 300m advice is now thought to be insufficient.

Pests & Disease: Relatively trouble free. Practice crop rotation and keep garden free from debris.