Importance of Legumes

Overview

The legume family contains approximately 18,000 species. For the average person, legumes are peanuts, beans and soy beans, lentils and peas. As food, legumes provide important nutrients. As an agricultural crop, legumes may be used not only for their commercial value as food, but also as a green manure crop.

History

Legumes, and more specifically beans, have been cultivated for food for centuries. As one of the first domesticated food plants, legumes proved adaptable to a variety of soil types, and varieties of the species are found virtually on all inhabited continents. Archaeologists have found evidence that planting legumes as a means of improving soil was an agricultural practice in the ancient civilizations of Greece and Egypt. In Roman times, legumes were an important part of the practice of crop rotation.

Function

Legumes draw nitrogen from the surrounding air and fix it to the soil, supplying the soil with this essential nutrient. This nitrogen fixing aids in the health of the soil, particularly for subsequent crops such as broccoli and cabbage, both heavy nitrogen feeders. Legumes also benefit humans. High in protein and low in fats, legumes are important to vegetarian and vegan diets as a source of protein. Legumes are high in fiber and plant sterols, both important elements in a heart-healthy diet.

Features

Legumes are characterized by the split shell, such as those easily recognized in beans and peanuts. The shells or pods contain the seed of the plant. In the case of such foods as green beans, the pod is edible. Many legume seeds are small with a hard outer skin and require extensive cooking, as with kidney beans or garbanzo beans. Garbanzo beans may be ground into flour and used as a gluten-free alternative to wheat flour.

Benefits

Legumes may be grown as a green manure crop in large-scale agriculture. Green manure is the term applied to a crop turned into the soil after flowering but before the plant sets its seed. In the case of legumes, the high nitrogen content of the foliage revitalizes soil that has been depleted by previous crops.

Considerations

In home gardening, legumes benefit other crops with its nitrogen-fixing ability. Planted with squash and corn, a trinity known in Native American agriculture as The Three Sisters, the legumes, usually beans, fix the nitrogen for the corn and squash. Both corn and squash require high concentrations of nitrogen for growth. The corn stalks provide support for the beans and the squash provides cover to keep the soil moist and the weeds at bay.

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About this Author

Shelly McRae resides in Phoenix, Ariz. Having earned her associate's degree from Glendale Community College with a major in graphic design and technical writing, she turned to online writing. Her credits include articles for 123Life.com, eHow.com and several non-commercial sites. Her work background also includes experience in the home improvement industry and hydroponic gardening.