Bean is a common name for large plant seeds of several genera of Fabaceae (formerly Leguminosae) (English: leguminous, legumes), used for food or feed. Bean originally meant the seed of the fava bean, but was later broadened to include members of the genus Phaseolus such as the common bean or haricot and the runner bean and the related genus Vigna. The term is now applied in a general way to many other related plants such as soybeans, peas, lentils, vetches and lupins. It can be used as a near synonym of pulse, that is an edible legume, though some restrict pulse to just varieties used as dry seeds.
In English usage beans sometimes also refer to seeds or other organs of non leguminosae for example coffee beans, castor beans and cocoa beanss (which resemble bean seeds), and vanilla beans (which resemble the pods).
The genus Phaseolus contains 55 species, 5 of which have been domesticated. All Phaseolus species originate in Meso America and have been cultivated for thousands of years by pre-Columbian civilizations.
Today, Phaseolus species are cultivated worldwide in both tropical, semi tropical and temperate climates.
P. vulgaris exists in many forms and colours. They are grown as dry beans or as green beans. There are bushy types, climbing types, green, yellow or speckled pods, black, green, red, and speckled seeds. This enormous variety in forms and colours of the different plant parts has given rise to a great variation in names. P. vulgaris grown for dried bean production are known as pinto, kidney, navy, black turtle bean. P. vulgaris grown for fresh consumption is known as snap, french, green, wax (yellow pods), pole or runner (climbing) beans.
P. coccineus is normally a pluriannual plant whith stems that can reach several metres. The main uses are the green pods or the white dried seeds. The seeds are large. The scarlet runner beans have been grown extensively in Meso America, Europe and parts of Africa (Ethiopia).
P. coccineus has large flowers which are scarlet or white in colour. Due to its flowers, scarlet runner beans are also grown as ornamental plants in the USA and Europe.
P.coccineus is often grown in association with maize or sorghum whereby the maize or sorghum acts as support for the semi climbing runner beans.
P. acutifolius is a very drought reistant bean which is grown in (semi)desert conditions from Arizona through Mexico to Costa Rica. The water requirements are low and the crop will grow in areas where annual rainfall is less than 400 mm.
The following traditional uses of beans refer to the fava bean. In ancient Greece and Rome, beans were used in voting (a white bean meant yes and a black bean meant no) 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 they caused bad dreams. Pliny claimed they acted as a laxative. European folklore also claims that planting beans on Good Friday or during the night-time is good luck.
In English usage, bean is used to denote energy and activity, such as the idiom "full of beans". To "spill the beans" means to give out a secret.