What Is a Broad Bean?


The broad bean (Vicia faba), an annual legume, has origins in the Mediterranean and North Africa where it is an important culinary ingredient. The broad bean has many popular names including the fava bean, Windsor bean, English bean, horse bean and field bean. It has a protein content second only to the soya bean.


Broad bean plants have stiff stems and grow from 2 to 6 feet tall. They produce clusters of flowers at the base of each leaf; the flowers are maroon or deep violet blotched with white. A plant may produce 50 to 80 flowers, but yield less than 12 pods.Thick, wide and leathery, broad bean pods grow up to 10 inches long. The pods turn from green to blackish-brown at maturity; each contains 3 to 8 round or oval seeds 1/2 inch to 1 1/2 inches long.


Broad beans are native to temperate climates although they are grown in the tropics. In areas with mild winters they are planted in the fall for an early summer harvest. Where winters are cold they are planted in the early spring. In the tropics they are grown as a winter annual.


Broad beans can withstand saline soils and are sometimes grown as a cover crop to prevent soil erosion. In the Arabic world, a cultivar called equine, the horse bean, is used to feed horses. Broad beans are ordinarily planted 3 to 4 inches apart in rows that are 3 feet apart. They are also planted in hills 4 feet apart, usually with six seeds for each hill. Taller broad bean varieties require stakes or trellises to support their weight.

Culinary Uses

The broad bean is a favorite vegetable in Spain, France, Italy, Australia and the U.K. In Egypt and the Middle East, broad beans replace chick peas as the basis for making hummus. In Ethiopia and other parts of North Africa a kind of flavored broad bean paste similar to hummus is eaten with flatbreads. Broad beans are made into soups and stews throughout the Mediterranean. In Mexico and Latin America they are eaten mashed, made into soups and turned into dried, salted snacks.


While broad beans are popular in the cuisine of many parts of the world eating them can cause anemia in people with a deficiency of G6PD (glucose-6-phosphate deydrogenase), a rare hereditary disease caused by a recessive gene. This disease is ordinarily found in males of North African descent and not all those who suffer from the condition show reactions from eating broad beans.

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About this Author

Richard Hoyt, the author of 26 mysteries, thrillers and other novels, is a former reporter for Honolulu dailies and writer for "Newsweek" magazine. He taught nonfiction writing and journalism at the university level for 10 years. He holds a Ph.D. in American studies.