Before Columbus, the Old World was familiar with numerous kinds of beans, but neither our common bean, Phaseolus vulgaris, nor the lima bean, P. lunatus, was known. Their American origin is fixed by descriptions and references to finding them at many widely scattered points over the Americas about 1500 and soon after.
The word "bean," like the word "vegetable," is indefinite. It is used to refer to the seeds of many different kinds of plants.
Our use of the expression "common bean" is in accord with the scientific name Phaseolus vulgaris, which means exactly that. It includes our dry, field varieties, such as Navy or Pea Bean, Red Kidney, Pinto, Great Northern, Marrow, and Yellow Eye. It also includes all our edible-podded garden beans called stringless or snap beans and formerly called string beans. (Some varieties are stringy.)
The English first used the name "kidney bean" in 1551 to distinguish our American common bean from Old World types.
In the South and some other parts of this country lima beans are commonly called "butter beans." In New England this colloquialism is sometimes used to refer to yellowpodded ("wax") varieties of snap beans.
Lima Bean a Native of Guatemala
Not long ago Brazil was believed to be the country of origin of lima beans, but new evidence points to Guatemala. Wild primitive lima beans have been found there, along with a remarkable diversity of cultivated forms. Their distribution from Guatemala has been traced by the various "prehistoric varieties" left along Indian trade routes.
One course of prehistoric "bean migration" extended up through Mexico into what is now our Southwest, thence eastward to spread from Florida to Virginia. The lima beans grown by the various Indian tribes over all that territory varied from the present small types used by the Hopi Indians in the Southwest to the Sieva type found in the East.
Another course extended down through Central America into Peru, where the large-seeded, large-podded types were developed in the warm coastal areas. The name "lima bean" obviously came from Lima, Peru, one point at which the species was found by early European explorers.
A third, but less extensive, branch of development extended eastward through the West Indies and thence southward toward the mainland of South America. This Caribbean branch of the species contains types that tend to develop poisonous quantities of cyanide under certain conditions, but the other two branches have not shown this treacherous tendency. These "bad actors" are generally very small, nearly round, and often are hardly recognizable as lima beans.
There is an almost endless diversity of seed sizes, shapes, and color combinations among the lima beans, although few colored varieties are now grown in the United States.
Since dry common and lima beans are highly concentrated foods and are easily carried and stored for long periods, the explorers and slavers of the early 1500's found them ideal for replenishing their ships' stores. Supplies were obtained from Indians in numerous places in the Americas and incidentally carried to the farthest parts of the earth-Europe, Africa, the East Indies, India, the Philippines.
By the late 1700's there were many records of the lima bean in all those places. Apparently it was first recorded in Europe about 1591. It is far less important in most of Europe than is the common bean, since it requires warm weather for good growth.
The bush varieties of lima bean are of rather recent development (since 1875), although the dwarf mutation on which they are based had doubtless recurred innumerable times before anyone thought of making use of it.
The common bean also is believed to have originated in Central America and to have undergone somewhat the same distribution as the lima bean. Because of its greater range of cultivation all over the Americas at the time of discovery, and its greater diversity in North America, it is probable that its culture is even older than that of the lima bean.
Beans a Mainstay of Indian Diet
When the white man discovered the Americas, beans were almost as universally grown as maize and supplemented maize in the diet to a very important degree. Climbing beans were generally planted along with maize all over the Americas.
Maize is high in starch but deficient in certain proteins, while beans are high in those proteins. The combination of beans and maize, we know in the light of modern nutrition, met most of the requirements of those Indian tribes of Central America that used little or no meat. The Indians invented succotash.
The pods of some forms were eaten in the green state, at least by white men, virtually from the time of their discovery. It was less than a hundred years ago, however, that truly stringless, nearly fiberless, tender-podded varieties, such as we know today, were developed.