Pacific Northwest Permaculture Plants: Fava Beans

Clayton Pacific Northwest Permaculture Plants Leave a Comment

The Fava Bean (Faba Bean, Broad Bean) is an ancient legume with which every permaculture practitioner in the Pacific Northwest should be familiar. Its uses are multitudinous and diverse. The Fava Bean can bring resilience and health to any permaculture system and should not be overlooked by anyone interested in sustainable agriculture.

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Characteristics of the Fava Bean

Fava Beans appear to have come into widespread cultivation as a staple of the mediterranean diet as early as 6000 BC. The Fava Bean has evolved to have a high plant hardiness and the ability to grow in a wide range of soil types. It is these two traits in combination that make the Fava bean particularly suited to our bioregion. Favas can be successfully planted as late as November into marginal soils and still produce bountifully in the spring. For those interested in saving their own seeds, Favas are exceptionally generous and easy to work with, reproducing true to type with a high germination rate.

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There is another aspect to Favas that can play a big role in a permacultural system, one which they share with almost all other legumes: the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil. It is not the plant itself but a symbiotic relationship between the Fava and nitrogen fixing bacteria that attach to the roots of the Fava and collect nitrogen out of the air and rainwater. When Favas die back this nitrogen then becomes available at the level of soil microbiology.

This last characteristic of Favas is particularly relevant to us in the Pacific Northwest because the high amount of rainfall leaches nitrogen out of our soils. Thus in addition to being cold hardy and clay tolerant, the Fava can play a key role in our annual gardens, succession landscapes, and crop rotations by providing nitrogen for the plant communities that surround and succeed them.

Fava Beans on the Farm and in the Garden

Having looked at some of the characteristics of Favas, we turn now to their uses in the permaculture farm and garden. Favas are most commonly used as a cover crop in Oregon. Their cold hardiness makes late plantings successful and they can boost nitrogen in the soil and when planted densely enough suppress some weeds. Unlike some other cover crops Favas do not spread vigorously and can be cut down easily well before they go to seed. The stems can be cut down and left to rot or tilled into the soil as green manure. Some varieties of Favas are also used widely as a protein source for animal feed and forage.

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Fava Beans in the Kitchen

The most overlooked quality of Favas, at least in Northwestern culture, are their culinary uses. This is due in part to two factors. First, Favas have two shells. The outer pod and an inner translucent skin that covers the Fava bean and when mature is inedible. Second, Favas have a strong flavor that when prepared incorrectly can be undesirable. Despite these hurdles, Fava beans have a long culinary history in both Mediterranean and Asian cooking.

I grew up eating fried Fava beans in Thailand. Using the Thai method there is no need to shell the beans as they crack when fried and the hard outer shell is easily peeled off. When young, Favas can add a delicious buttery flavor to salads, and there is no need to shell here either since the outer casing is still soft and edible.

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For other uses Fava beans should be soaked overnight and then parboiled. After parboiling the outer shell is easily slipped off. I have enjoyed Favas in spicy stir fries, as a side dish on their own (cooked in butter), in vegetable soups and made into a hummus like dish called Bessara. If you are adventurous you should feel free to improvise but I recommend following a few recipes first to better learn the culinary qualities of Favas, especially if you are easily put off by unsatisfactory results. Favas can be frozen after parboiling and will store nicely in the freezer for up to year, but thawing and refreezing is not recommended.

One last culinary aspect of Favas is worth discussion. There is a genetic condition, often referred to as Favism, in which consumption of Favas can occasionally lead to anemia, jaundice and symptoms of hemolysis. This occurs primarily in certain males of Mediterranean descent although a related genetic condition known as G6PD is closely linked with Favism. If you are of Mediterranean descent or G6PD positive some caution in the consumption of Favas is warranted. Consult your health professional if you have concerns.

Saving Fava Bean Seeds

If you do decide to use Favas, consider learning how to save their seeds. There are few plants that are easier to work with in this regard. I have had high germination rates and vigorous growth from Fava seeds over 3 years old. In order to save their seed, choose a small section of your planting and when the seed pods are fully matured stop watering the plants for a couple of weeks before harvesting the seed pods. The pods should be dark brown or black and make a dry rattling sound when shaken. I like to leave the seeds in the pods stored in a cool dry place for a couple of months. Then when I have some free time I shell them and put the seeds in an airtight container. Old pill bottles (thoroughly washed out) work excellently, but I have friends who store them in envelopes or mason jars with little discernable difference in growth rate and germination. The key here is simply to keep the seeds away from moisture. I am told they store for 3-5 years but I would not be surprised if they lasted much longer.

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In conclusion, Fava Beans can be an essential element of any Northwestern permaculture system. I can think of few other species that combine the traits of cold hardiness, tolerance of marginal soils, nitrogen fixation, vigorous growth, ease of seed-saving, and deliciousness!

What do you think? Did we miss any permacultural uses for Fava beans? Any delicious recipes that include Favas you would like to share? Please comment below.

Sources and additional reading:

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vicia_faba
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Favism
  • http://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1957/15226/em8697.pdf
  • http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/afcm/fababean.html
  • http://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_a/A129/ – article on nitrogen fixing