Growing Tepary Beans: The Most Heat-Tolerant Crop in the World

Tepary Beans: An Extremely Drought-Resistant Crop

tepary-beans

Tepary beans. Photo by Kevin Geer.

By Kevin Geer – I grow beans every year on the ranch. One of my favorite meals includes fresh-picked Blue Lake Green beans. They’re so delicious! Just thinking about it makes me hungry. Well, anyway, in addition to growing green beans, I also grow an additional variety or two of beans that I can dry and enjoy throughout the winter months. If anyone has read my previous articles here in Countryside, you will note that every article mentions the need to conserve water in agriculture. I live in California and like all parts of the west, we survive in an environment that is continually water “stressed.” So water is always on my mind when ordering seeds and planning the size of the garden. You can imagine my interest when a Native American friend of mine, Kevin, mentioned that I could save a lot of water by growing Tepary beans.

Kevin gave me a few handfuls of Tepary beans he grows. As you can see in the photo, there are two colors, a white bean, and a brown bean. Kevin grows them in Arizona’s lower desert, just outside of Phoenix, where he plants them during the summer monsoons. So just the idea that I could grow a crop with great drought and heat tolerance got me online and looking into more specifics on these Tepary beans.

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History of Tepary Beans

Tepary beans are native to North America and have been planted here by the local indigenous communities for thousands of years. There are records of Tepary bean agriculture from Costa Rica to the American South West that go back to pre Colombus times or 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. Further research shows that many Tribes have developed a particular color of bean specific to their region. If you go online and find nativeseeds.org, you will see that they offer many colors of Tepary Beans that are listed by color and tribe. A few examples that you can find in the Native Seeds Catalogue are, Cumpas White, Cocopah Brown, Hopi White, Paiute Yellow, Colonia Morelos Speckled, and there are many more.

Tepary Bean

Many Tepary bean colors, courtesy of Native Seeds/research.

In just the same way that my friend Kevin plants his beans, these Native tribes plant Tepary beans during the hot summer months when the monsoon rains come (July through the first week of August). They are planted using the traditional Three Sisters method. Which means the beans are planted along with corn and winter squash, also known as companion planting. Corn is planted first in the center of mounds. Once the corn reaches a height that provides some shade and structure, the beans and squash are then planted around the corn. The corn provides support for the beans, some tepary vines can grow up to thirteen feet long. The beans provide fixed nitrogen in the soil for the squash and corn, and the squash spreads along the ground providing shade that inhibits weeds, while squash leaves provide mulch that helps the soil with water retention and the hairs on the squash stems help deter pests.

These three plants together, provide complex carbohydrates, protein, calcium, iron, soluble fiber, essential fatty acids and all eight essential amino acids that are necessary for a nutritionally complete, plant-based diet.

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Reverse side of 2009 Native American U.S. Dollar coin, showing the three sisters.

 

Tepary Beans

The THREE SISTERS: Corn, beans, and squash growing together in the garden.

Planting Tepary Beans on my Ranch

I found that the Tepary bean itself is fairly easy to grow. They are the most heat-tolerant crop grown in the world. As I mentioned earlier, in Arizona, the beans are traditionally planted during the summer monsoon season, which produces heavy warm and infrequent rains from July through early August. I planted mine once the soil warmed to 75 degrees, using a traditional row method, without stakes. Like all my legumes, I coated the seeds with an organic inoculant.

Inoculants are powdered bacteria, Rhizobium, that work in a symbiotic relationship with the plant’s roots and allow legumes to remove nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil in a form that allows plants to use the nutrient.

When planting, the seeds need moisture to germinate but once the true leaves appear, it’s best to let the plant wilt between waterings as Tepary beans cannot tolerate too much water. This is the first crop I’ve ever planted that needed less water than I wanted to give it. The vines grow quickly and produce beans in about two months. Or about one month before my other bean crops.

tepary-beans

It’s important to pick the pods once they start to dry as once they are completely dry they open and “spill the beans” (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

The dried beans are small and can be used in the kitchen the same as any dry bean. I found the white beans to be slightly sweet while the brown variety had a typical earthy bean flavor.

Tepary Beans

Dry open pod. Photo courtesy of Steve Russell.

Tepary beans are high in protein and have calcium which is a difficult nutrient to find in the desert. I found them very easy to grow, delicious, nutritious, and a great addition to my garden. I have two hot spots in my field that are hotter than any other part of my garden. Everything I’ve tried to plant there just suffers. The Tepary beans really thrived.

Tepary Flower

Tepary flower courtesy of Firefly Forest.

Tepary beans are also self-fertilizing and as productive in terms of crop yield per acre as any other bean I’ve grown.

I look forward to next year when I’ll plant them again and try a few more color options from nativeseeds.org.

While researching information on Tepary beans, I came across an interesting study by Helen Harwat. A researcher trained in Environmental Nutrition. According to Ms. Harwat and a team of professors from Oregon State University, Board College, and Loma Linda University, if Americans made just one simple change to their diet. That is replacing all beef in their diet with beans, the results would be:

  • The USA would meet it’s 2020 emission goals.
  • A large amount of land is currently used for livestock and could be put to more productive use.
  • 33% of all arable land is currently used for growing livestock feed.
  • 26% of all ice-free land on earth is used for grazing livestock.

These figures apply only to large-scale commercial livestock and not small farms.

As the world population grows, there will be more and more effort and energy put into refining our agriculture practices to achieve the highest possible nutrition from our diminishing agricultural acreage and water.

Kevin Geer

Self-portrait sketched by the author. Kevin Geer lives on a small ranch in Northern Baja California where he grows organic apples and vegetables.

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Comments
  • Nice, very informative, thank you for supporting indigenous knowledge and tradition, John, my friend, I hope your harvest continues to be bountiful

    Reply

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