People today have a love/hate relationship with the humble lima bean. Its soft texture and mild taste is either cause for celebration or reason enough to push the dinner plate away. Ancient tribes from Central America, where these legumes are thought to have originated, relied on them far more than we do today, as did North American settlers. Low in fat and high in fiber, lima beans were a dietary staple, thereby contributing to northern tribal migrations into North America, where European settlers incorporated them into their meals.
Lima beans were first thought to have originated in Brazil, but are now believed to have come from Guatemala in Central America. The country’s tropical climate, influenced by the Pacific and Caribbean oceans, creates perfect growing conditions for lima beans and thousands of other plant species. Primitive lima varieties still grow there, along with several cultivated types. Their name comes from European explorers who first saw them in Lima, Peru.
Archeologists have traced bean distribution along ancient, well-worn Indian trade routes. Limas were grown as dry beans to make them easy to transport. Their prehistoric migration reached into Mexico and what is now the American Southwest, and eastward to Florida and other southern states that also have warm climates. North American tribes adapted lima bean varieties to their growing regions, cultivating small types usually grown today. Migration also occurred to the east into the West Indies and into South America.
The first explorers quickly noticed the importance of lima beans in Native American diets. The legumes had become as important as maize, with each supplementing what the other nutritionally lacked. Beans and corn were often planted together, particularly climbing bean varieties. White settlers transported lima beans back to Europe, but they did not catch on as well in northern countries where climates were not warm enough for the plants to thrive. They were also carried to Africa, India and other places in the world for cultivation.
The Slave Trade
Slavers, liking that lima beans stored easily and for long periods, transported them back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean in the 1500s. The beans were also favored because of their dense concentration of vitamins, fiber, protein and minerals, which make them more filling than starchier vegetables with higher carbohydrate levels. Once in North American, slaves may have then acquired bean seeds from Native American tribes to cultivate.
Colonialists and their descendants continued cultivating lima beans, particularly the smaller Sieva varieties that were hybridized to better withstand heat, in their home gardens. Letters and other written communication from Thomas Jefferson and George Washington show lima beans seeds were swapped and plants grown in their gardens.