I’ve grown scarlet runner beans as ornament for years. They attract humming birds — and certainly did again this year, and are very beautiful and colorful when in full bloom in late summer and fall. I just learned, however, that scarlet runners are entirely edible. In the UK, people eat the flowers and the beans, fresh and dried. Only Stateside are scarlet runners not fully appreciated.
Scarlet runner beans are a runner or pole bean, namely they climb and need support to grow — unlike bush beans which make a shrub and don’t need support to climb. Once the dog days pass, they bloom bright red, pea-like flowers that humming birds love. And they produce broad beans, much like Italian broad beans. Like all beans, they originate from the Americas so it’s ironic that we in the Americas are learning from the Brits to eat a native plant again.
So I decided to be curious and inventive, demonstrating my gardening grit, to see how I might enjoy scarlet runner beans. The small bean pods are much like the familiar green bean only a bit sweeter and summery. For the variety I’m growing, the fresh, shelled beans are kidney-lima bean size, pinkish-magenta-white. When cooked they are pearly gray and must dry to black since that’s what I planted. They are very sweet and tasty, much like butter beans. I’m eating them raw, and they are yummy. Here’s a recipe for preparing them, an Indian summer salad with beets, garden onions and herbs which I adapted from the Moro East cookbook by Sam and Sam Clark. (Any broad bean would work.)
beet and scarlet runner bean salad
5-6 small – medium beets of varying colors
big bunch of scarlet runner beans, small and large
2 garden onions or 4 green onions, chopped
a medium-sized bunch of fresh tarragon, stems removed
4-5 tablespoons of olive oil for dressing
1-2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Wash, trim and roast the beets at 400 degrees for 45 minutes or until soft when forked. Remove from oven and cool.
Divide the beans into two piles: small pods and pods with beans as large as your finger nail. Cut the small and medium-sized beans into diagonally cut pieces. Remove any strings from the pods when cutting. Open the large bean pods, remove the beans and add to chopped, smaller beans. Saute the beans and bean pod pieces in olive oil until al dente. Remove and cool.
Peel the beets, chop and place in bowl. Add beans and onions.
Mix the olive oil and vinegar to form a dressing. Add half the tarragon leaves to the dressing. Toss beets and beans with dressing. Top with remaining tarragon.
Or top with the scarlet runner flowers! The tarragon dressing makes this a special salad.
Caveat: do NOT eat hyacinth beans, another ornamental bean with pink and lavender flowers and dark purple pods,because beans, flowers and leaves are toxic! Hyacinth beans are for visual enjoyment only. Considerable visual enjoyment as they are abundantly beautiful with dark green-purplish leaves, lovely pinkish-lavender flowers and clusters of shiny, imperial-purple pods.