A Bean Worth Drying: The Scarlet Runner

The pink-and-purple beans are from green pods.
The pink-and-purple beans are from green Scarlet Runner pods.

I was filling baskets with French beans and Spanish magic beans last summer when I noticed that some of my Scarlet Runner beans were ready to eat. Why in the world had I planted so many beans?

I was growing runners for the first time in at least seven years. I’d stopped planting them when my children had stopped asking me to erect bean tepees, which had never seemed worth the trouble of building. For years I had imagined the kids sitting inside a lovely live, green tepee on a hot summer day, making fairy houses or reading a picture book, and they apparently shared this fantasy. But it rarely came true. Hoeing in the tepee was difficult, so before long the space would fill with tall weeds. Watering was always troublesome, too. I would wrap a soaker hose around the perimeter of the tepee, but the hose would leak, from a tear or from a faulty connection, and form a mud puddle. And then one day the wind would come up and bend the tepee to one side, and, despite my efforts at straightening, the tepee would lean ridiculously for the rest of the summer. Unless I let it collapse altogether, picking the highest bean pods was nearly impossible; a ladder wouldn’t fit inside the tepee, and when I set the ladder on the outside the peak of the tepee was too far away to reach.

But last winter I realized that I missed the Scarlet Runner bean’s bright red flowers and meaty pods. I thought of an easier trellising system: I would anchor a cattle panel with metal fence stakes and then tie tall bamboo poles to the cattle panel. Our bamboo grows to only about fifteen feet, and runner vines can run longer, but I figured they could hang from the top, dangling their pods to within my reach.

And so in early summer I planted a small handful of Scarlet Runner beans and set up my sturdy new trellis. Now the first meaty pods had to be picked, or else they would get tough and fibrous. At the moment, though, I had no appetite for them. They were too few to bother blanching and freezing, and the kitchen refrigerator was stuffed full of other vegetables. Could I do as so many other gardeners did—enjoy the flowers and let the beans go? I was too frugal for that.

There was an obvious alternative: I could leave the pods alone now and shell them later. I had always saved shelled runner beans for later planting, but only a handful or two, and only at the end of the season. I’d never thought to save the whole crop for drying and eating.

Growing your own beans for drying takes dedication, especially in the Pacific Northwest. You’ve got to put the seeds in the ground early enough for the pods to fill and start drying before the fall rains begin to rot them. Rotting is especially likely with bush beans, which often rest their pods directly on the wet ground. And, assuming you can collect enough full, healthy pods, you might need an hour to shell enough little beans by hand for one family dinner.

The last of the harvest. Although the pods are stained with mold, the seeds within are flawless.
The last of the harvest. Although the pods are stained with mold, the seeds within are flawless.

But runner beans are more amenable to drying than bush beans or any kidney beans. When provided with a trellis, runner beans hang their pods high, where they’re less prone to rot. The plants can survive a few light frosts. And because the seeds are big, about an inch long or longer, shelling goes fast.




Thanks to a dry September and a fairly warm October (during which the plants did indeed withstand light frosts), I was able to put off harvesting the runner beans until after Halloween. Then I tossed the pods, in various stages of drying, into a tray in the greenhouse. In mid-November I shelled some. With ten minutes’ work I had a pound. As you can see, the shelled beans were beautiful, violet speckled with black.

To fully appreciate the beans as food, I decided to serve them plain. I soaked them and boiled them as I would any beans, and then puréed them with a little olive oil, salt, and smoked paprika. With fresh, warm homemade tortillas, this was lunch. The bean purée was greyer than refried pinto beans but delicious, with a smooth, creamy texture and a mild flavor lacking in some beany element that, I realized, I really don’t like.

What was this unbean-like bean? I wanted to know its place in botany, history, and cookery.

Botanists, I learned, call runner beans Phaseolus coccineus. The species name refers to the color of the blossoms—red, like cochineal—although in some varieties the blossoms are white. Unlike Phaseolus vulgaris—regular kidney beans—runner beans are perennial, though outside of the tropics we can grow them only as annuals. In the highlands of southern Mexico and Central America, where the beans originated, the seeds come in many colors—white, pink, purple, and black—and go by frijoles botil, ayocotl, or ayocote (note the similarity of the last two words to the French haricot). The starchy roots get so big in Mesoamerica that they too are used as food, although mine looked too skinny to bother with.

Many American gardeners love the Scarlet Runner bean primarily as a hummingbird attractant, yet this particular variety was developed by the hummingbird-less English, who at first used the flowers in bouquets. John Tradescant the Younger, a botanist who traveled to Virginia between 1628 and 1637, gets credit for introducing the bean to England. I doubt he found it in Virginia at such an early date, although Thomas Jefferson probably grew it much later at Monticello; the French name haricot d’Espagne suggests a more likely path of transmission. A century after the Scarlet Runner came to England, Philip Miller, through his Gardener’s Dictionary, popularized it as food, although he didn’t make clear whether he liked the bean green or shelled.* In any case, when the English eat runner beans today, they are nearly always in the pod.

Phaseolus coccineus is popular in Spain as a dried bean, but usually in a form with white seeds. In Spain you can buy packages of big white runner beans labeled as el judión de La Granja or judión de El Barco for your olla.

Mexico and Central America grow runner beans less than they used to, since the vines don’t fit well with modern monoculture. And Mexican and Central American farmers don’t grow the Scarlet Runner at all, at least not commercially. But they have their own favorite runner-bean varieties. Best known are ayocote morado, with pale lavender flowers and purple seeds, and ayocote negro, with big orange-red flowers and seeds that dry purple-black. Both of these varieties are available for gardeners from various little seed companies who advertise on the Internet. If you want to taste ayocote morado beans before planting them, you can order them for $7.25 a pound from California’s Rancho Gordo.

If Americans are now paying $7.25 a pound for imported purple runner beans, why aren’t we eating the speckled ones from our gardens? All runner beans, says the Rancho Gordo website, “are great with loads of garlic and wild mushrooms or just as part of a mixed salad. In Mexico, you find them served with a chile sauce or in a soup, but in Europe, you might see them drowned in good fruity olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice before dusting with sea salt.” Isn’t that inspiring?

In December I shelled some more of my runner beans and made this vegetable stew:

Stewed Runner Beans with Tomatoes

2 tablespoons olive oil
½ pound onions, cut into wedges
½ cup diced red peppers, sweet or mildly hot
4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 quart canned tomatoes, with their juice
3 fennel seeds
2 pinches ground saffron
½ cup chopped parsley
Ground black pepper
12 ounces (about 2 cups) dried Scarlet Runner beans, boiled until tender with a
sprig of sage and a garlic clove

In a large skillet, sauté the onions. Add the peppers and garlic, and sauté until the garlic releases its fragrance. Add the tomatoes, fennel, saffron, and parsley, and twist the pepper mill over the pan two or three times. Break up the tomatoes with a spoon or spatula. When the mixture is hot, add the beans. Boil the mixture about 10 minutes, until it’s suitably thick. Add salt to taste, and serve with bread or rice.

I wish I’d taken a picture of this dish, so you could see how the beans stayed intact and took on a handsome deep red color, somewhere between brick and burgundy. The dish would especially please vegetarians, although it would also be excellent with cooked bacon or sausage slices added toward the end of cooking. And you could vary the seasonings; for example, you might add oregano, cumin, or bay.

Scarlet Runner beans for planting are easy to find. If you prefer, you might choose a closely related cultivar, such as Scarlet Emperor, an English type selected for tasty pods and sold by Nichols, Botanical Interests, West Coast, and Territorial. Painted Lady Runner bean, with bi-colored red and white blossoms, is available from Kitchen Garden Seeds, and you can buy Sunset Runner bean, with salmon-pink flowers, from Seed Savers Exchange or Pinetree.


*”Although this sort is chiefly cultivated for the beauty of its flowers at present, yet I would recommend it as the best sort for the table; and whoever will make trial of this, I dare say must prefer it to all the other kinds yet known.”



63 thoughts on “A Bean Worth Drying: The Scarlet Runner”

  1. Thanks for the mention in your very nice post. We’re about to get Golden Yellow runners from Puebla, which are starchier than most but still delicious.
    I want to clarify, we import some beans through the Rancho Gordo- Xoxoc Project but 85% of our production is in California, including our Scarlet Runners.

    1. Thank you for that correction, Steve, and for letting me and my readers know that Rancho Gordo sells Scarlet Runners and Golden Yellow Runners as well as the varieties I mentioned.

  2. What a brilliant idea! I have a “bean cube”…a tangled mass of scarlet runners, yin/yang beans and borlotti beans in the middle of a chicken wire enclosure. It’s a cube because the possums adore them and reach in and grab as much foliage as they can and have restricted the beans to a cube of foliage in the middle of the enclosure. I have decided to dry my entire bean harvest (such as it is) this year so that I have seed for next year when we are building a MASSIVE enclosure to keep out the possums and wallabies and will be keeping my scarlet runners as well. I love the idea of using them dried. The seeds are enormous, almost rivelling a broad bean and as a vegan I love pulses and how they fill a protein gap in my diet. Cheers for this wonderful and most sage advice (sage, garlic and beans…YUM! 😉 ).

  3. Wonderful article. Thank you. I have grown scarlet runners for years. One year I made the mistake of shelling and putting beans in a closed jar. Horrors! They molded!. Now I leave them in the shell in a 3-tiered, hanging screen contraption I purchased at an Asian shop.
    Mine grow up the side of my deck, and on up double-lashed bamboo poles.. One thing I should mention, if you don’t pick any of the green beans, your crop is probably going to be smaller.

    For my veggie course for dinner, I simply dine at the vine. I eat the flowers sometimes, too. But I am very careful to leave behind any bean that already has a visible bean-bump because as you know, it is no longer edible as a green bean.

    If beans have no support, and begin to dangle, they quit producing…they don’t like being ‘upside down’. (fact) I can feel pretty fanatical trying to hook a vine that’s lost it’s connection back onto the pole with another pole. Is it really worth this? YES!

    One of my annual winter ponderings is how to harvest those that have reached too far to the sky (without Jack), and without breaking my neck or the trellis. I now have visions of a cube-like contraption. Thanks for the idea!

    1. With four cattle panels, I suppose you could build “a cube-like contraption” with the tops of the bamboo poles fastened together in the center. Then you could plant tender greens inside, where they would have a little shade and the chickens couldn’t get them–provided you could figure out how to get inside yourself. Maybe I’ll try just two cattle panels, bent into a circle.

      Thanks for your report, Meg. I’m enjoying imagining you dining at the vine, and nibbling an occasional scarlet blossom.

      1. I’m trying to overwinter my vines. Cut them off at about 3 feet in the Fall and waiting, fingers crossed. Anybody ever had any luck with this?

    1. I have had luck leaving the roots in the ground in raised beds in Eugene Oregon. i don’t know what % re-sprouted but I had 2 tomato cages covered in scarlet runners in the same place I grew them last year.

  4. I found a really good use for these beans – as a substitute for chickpeas in hummus. Recipe: take 150gm soaked & cooked runner beans, 5-6 teaspoons of tahini, couple of lemons, several cloves of garlic and blend them all up – delicious and nicer than the chickpea variation, I reckon.

  5. I was fortunate enough to harvest the green pod version of runner beans at a Botanical Garden as a volunteer. I cam away with a few pounds of overgrown pods for the sole purpose of drying these lovely magenta seeds. Thanks for the post! Also snagged a few red runner bean pods to save for planting next year. Can’t wait to try them out!

  6. I just picked my scarlet runner beans and have them drying on a screen in the garage. I’ve never tried drying them before – hope I didn’t pick them too early but we’ve been having frosts for the last week and I didn’t want to push my luck.

  7. I plant at least five or six hills of scarlet runners each year especially for the dry beans. They make an epic veggie chili: the beans hold their shape well during long simmering and are wonderfully meaty and satisfying. Might have to whip up a batch tomorrow with the ’13 crop!

    We’re in the Portland, OR area, which is not noted as particularly suitable for dry bean production, but scarlet runners are well adapted to this cooler, damp climate, and growing, harvesting and storing a substantial crop is quite easy.

    1. “Meaty and satisfying” is an excellent description of cooked dried Scarlet Runner Beans. Puréed, they are also creamy and, to me, reminiscent of chocolate. My 2013 crop, from about 6 feet of row, is so big that I expect we’ll eat runner beans every week for the next year.

  8. First year growing scarlet runners…they have made us so happy and the bees/hummingbirds simply love ’em. Just finished up stewing a cup of fresh beans (took ’em straight out of the pod :), with other veggies/herbs from the garden and OMG!…tasty, tasty. Thank you for all your info about these incredible beans and the recipe that encouraged me to make my own.

  9. I’m an Englishman in France, yet my family’s habit of growing runner beans follows me wherever. I have to say that the idea of growing runner beans for anything but Mange-tous has never been an options as the beans fly off after two or three days growth into a pot ready with steam or water, knob of butter, sometimes a little squeezed lemon, and what can be better. In France there are many Mange-tout beans yet the ‘English’ (from Central America) runner has never been marketed as far as I know.

    However, it’s an option to have a go at the beans. Maybe dedicate a quarter crop to beans. I leave some to got that way for seed, often, yet not food yet!

    Here the beans were very late, August, and still strong in September!

    1. Michael, thanks for your comments on both chard and runner beans.
      In a quick search of the Web the only definition I’ve found for mange-tout (“eat-it-all”) is snow pea (as we say in the USA). Is the term also applied to beans, whenever the whole immature pod is eaten?

  10. When I shell my runners and decide that they’re too tough to eat fresh, I keep the seeds, throw them in a baggie in the freezer and use them in stews and soups in the winter. Thanks for the info about the fully mature purple (aren’t they gorgeous?!!) ones. I’ve always kept some to plant (they’re actually descendants of my father who did the same thing in the 50’s and 60’s) but have never made use of them for eating.

    1. Anne, what a good idea for using those in-between beans–too old too eat green, but with seeds too underdeveloped for storing dry. And how wonderful that your family has kept your strain going for so long!

      1. every year i anxiously wait for my runner beans to rattle in their pod before picking. then i lay in these great hanging, blue net drying cages i found (made in Vietnam) until i have time to shell. but..sometimes i am out of town and then the rain comes and potential for mold. I am going to miss my glass jar of beatiful purple beans but going to freeze as posted here if i have to pick early! better than losing! Thanks!

  11. Enjoyed your info about the Scarlett Runner Bean do you no if the Purple Hyacinth beans can also be dried and eaten?

    1. Leigh, I have no experience with hyacinth beans, but here’s what Wikipedia says: “The fruit and beans are edible if boiled well with several changes of the water. Otherwise, they are toxic due to the presence of cyanogenic glycosides, glycosides that are converted to hydrogen cyanide when consumed.”

  12. Reblogged this on Laura Bruno's Blog and commented:
    Yummy! It’s been a scarlet runner bean Halloween. With temperatures set to dip into the 20’s tonight, I pulled out the bamboo stakes, harvested the remaining pods, and spread the masses of nitrogen rich biomass on tomato beds, then covered with straw. I love the meaty taste and texture of scarlet runner beans, and they are just so pretty at every stage of growth! This afternoon, I added some of the green pods, chopped up, in a curried carrot (from the garden) soup. The pods need extra cooking, but everything tasted great.

    Thanks to A Gardener’s Table for the tip that I can let these dry off the vine on our porch. I wondered what to do with the huge pile on our counter! Looking forward to the recipe, too.

  13. I’ve been collecting up scarlet runner beans for about a month and today hauled out the last of the vines (mine had pretty big roots – maybe because I left them in so long). Sat down to look for something to do with them and found this delightful essay. I will be saving some for planting next year but will definitely plan to eat some over the winter. So pretty!

  14. I just shelled my very dry scarlet runner bean pods and some of the beans had a white coating, which easily rubbed off. Are these beans with the white coating safe to eat (after cleaning, of course)? Is it mold?

    1. Angela, I think the white coating probably is mold. If the bean looks perfect after the mold is rubbed off, I would use the bean with no concern about safety, because any mold that remains will be killed with cooking.

  15. My runner beans have never developed big roots, but I’d love to hear from any gardener with a longer growing season who has dug runner-bean tubers and replanted them.

    Meg, thank you for the link to the excerpt from William Woys Weaver’s excellent, encyclopedic Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, which I now wish I had in my library. Too bad that Mother Earth News has published a new edition only as an e-book. I see, though, that Amazon lists (expensive) copies of the first, 1997, edition of Weaver’s book. I am tempted.

  16. Hi, I live in New Zealand and here – in a frost free climate – you can grow scarlet runners as perennials. Fantastic vegetable!!! Especially when perennial. They do develop big roots and maybe you can store them and replant them when you live in a region with frosts? If it doesn’t get too cold, I would try to heap a lot of straw or other mulch on top of the roots and just leave them in the ground.But as the old plants take quite some time to appear again in spring, it might be easier and faster to plant new ones.

  17. This is my second year growing Scarlet Emperors and I want to try shelling the beans this year. I’m a novice gardener, so I don’t know when to pick the beans off the vine. They’re very big, swollen with beans, but still green. I picked a few and found beautiful deep pink beans inside- did I pick too early? If so, are those beans unusable now? I’m also in the Portland, OR area. Thanks.

  18. My English rellies go mad over Scarlet runner beans. There’s not a one of them that doesn’t have some in a corner of the garden every year. I’m not crazy about them fresh, can be stringy and tough if not caught at the right time no matter how much parsley sauce you drown them in, so I lean to the pencil-thin French beans, but since I’m forced to grow the Runners to please the English contingent in the family now, I think I will let them dry and use them as dried shelled beans! Thanks for the idea!

  19. Awesome article! I found this site in a Google search “Using old Scarlet Runner Beans”.
    I had built a dog pen in the back of my yard with 6′ high chainlink fencing. This year I fenced in my front yard for the dogs. I kept the pen out back for growing climbing plants on. The scarlet runners sure love it there! The entire one side of the fence is a mass of beautiful green, still flowering like crazy & loads of beans!
    Thanks for the great article. Now I know what to do with my beans & have a great looking new recipe to try!

      1. It sure is! Scarlet runners, Clematis, Grapes, peas, cucumbers, cucamelons… there are 4 sides to fill so there will be more next year. (season is over here – killer frost will soon come)

  20. Wonderful article! I have planted painted lady runner beans this year, the only a few plants, and have some large pods now hanging. I’m sure I have left them far too long to cook in the pod as it is now early October. I was debating picking them showing them and cooking them now as table beans. Now that I’ve read your article perhaps I should wait for them to dry further. If I do pick them now without trying to eat as table beans, would I still need to soak them? I’m thinking no, as they are not dried out. From what I’ve read it would be a matter of showing steaming and dressing them in whatever fashion. Have you tried this?

    1. Lise, I don’t think I’ve eaten runners as fresh shelled beans, but why not try them this way? I would set the half-dried ones aside to dry fully and cook only those that are still plump and pink. I would probably cook them in a pan with a little water, but I guess a steamer would work at least as well. Please let us know how your beans turn out.

    2. You will see my “dog pen” story above. I dried mine (because I didn’t know what to do with them just yet) and I eventually canned them. I used pint mason jars, 1/2 cup to each jar of dry beans, filled with water to 1 inch head space & pressure canned them for 75 minutes @10 pounds pressure (for my elevation). They make a wonderful dark thick broth. I add them to soups, chili (like you would kidney beans) & even rinse them off & add to bean salad. They are delicious!
      I bet they will be delicious fresh like yours! Next year I will have to try this!

  21. I found this recipe after shelling a bunch of runners saved from last fall and we made it tonight. It was SO good. I followed the recipe almost exactly though used some leeks for onions and added andouille sausage per suggestion and some kale at the end. Truly an outstanding dish and now I know that growing these doesn’t just have to be for the hummingbirds, thanks!

    Oh and FYI I soaked my beans overnight and cooked 15 minutes in a stovetop PC with natural release. It’s always a little iffy trying a new bean in the pressure cooker but this worked out really well!

  22. Thank you for your informative article and I’ve read all through these great comments and responses. If gardeners can’t talk in person, this is the next best thing 🙂 I live in Northern Vermont and our last frost is usually late May; then it can be anytime in September but we’ve been lucky so far. We grow Scarlet Runner beans mostly for the pretty red flowers and the crazy vining foliage, if I’m lucky I’ll find a few nice young ones to eat raw right off the vine, but usually they ‘get away’ from me and are huge. I do save a handful of the gorgeous, magenta/black beans for next years’ planting but didn’t know anything about saving those beans and considering them as a dried bean to cook and eat. I have an outdoor small greenhouse frame that is so covered with scarlet runner beans and morning glories, it has lost all its’ right angles and is a circular, leafy little cavern! Happy and beautiful growing to everyone!

  23. I happened across your blog, looking for recipes for Scarlet Runner Beans. I am going to post a blog post about Scarlet Runner Beans, that I have been growing in my garden for the past few years. I am looking for recipe ideas to link into my article as I have never tried to eat them myself. I would love to be able to refer people to your post and Blog!

  24. Very inventive idea! I am going to try your methods and recipe. I have ALOT of over grown red runner beans.

  25. “a mild flavor lacking in some beany element that, I realized, I really don’t like.”

    My mind is overthinking this, I’m sure. Does that mean you don’t like beany flavours, or, that you didn’t like that it was lacking a beany flavour?

  26. Hi Linda, I came across your story while I was researching the Scarlet Runner bean. I enjoyed your post, thanks for educating us :). A friend of mine gave me a baggie of various seeds last spring, that was sent to him from family in Mexico. Amongst the seeds, a beautiful purple and black speckled bean, I was intrigued. So I started a few in small pots. After they got 4 or 5 inches tall, I realized that I had no where to plant them, so I got my tiller out and prepared a 20 foot long, narrow area to plant. I amended the new mini garden with some old mulch that was laying around. After the plants (3) started to grow, I added a few bamboo stays for them to grow on. They took off like crazy. I bookended my beans with 4 tomato plants my neighbour had given to me, which also had nowhere to live and grow. After a little while these beautiful Scarlet flowers started to appear, Wow, what an awesome, vibrant coulour they were, then the bees and finally the Humming birds. Needless to say I was very proud of what I had made :). However, no beans. I`m thinking to my self, what is going on? Well after our hot Texas Summer was almost over, here come the beans, and boy did they come. The plant got no taller than 3 feet tall. I wished I had given them more of an opportunity to grow higher, next year 🙂 I have one question, which is what brought me to find your post initially. 2 plants offered me white dry beans, the other, white with black specks, but No pretty Purple speckled ones :(. I am supposing, had I planted more, I may have gotten a few Purple ones? All the ones I sowed were of the speckled Purple variety. Hmm. I guess I will find out next year, because I have lots and lots of beans to plant. If for No other reason but to enjoy the flowers and wildlife they attract, these beans are a Gem, and I am So glad my friend thought to share them with me.

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