Botany of Desire: Fava Fever

By Angela Goebel, July 14, 2010


“Ah! You don’t know what these beans are,” said the man; “They’re magical. If you plant them over-night, by morning they grow right up to the sky.”  —Jack and the Beanstalk

On Farm Film Night this Tuesday, we will celebrate our coevolution with plants by screening The Botany of Desire. Based on the book by Michael Pollan, the film explores the power dynamic between plants and people, as well as what plants reveal about human desire. If tulips have tamed us with their beauty, I would argue that the fava bean illustrates our desire to attain prosperity.

Berms of fava, buzzing bees, volunteers leaving with bags full of beans: Hayes Valley Farm has been prey to fava fever during the last few months. The fava bean has been stamped into my mind and settled into my stomach. But what do all these favas mean? How does our relationship to them on the farm relate to their longer history with us?

My personal history with favas began in Florence, Italy. A lovely spring evening was unfolding when I split open my first bean. “Questa e una fava,” I was told over dinner. I looked at it in awe and puzzlement. Was it an oversized pea pod, a green bean?

Non capito,” I said. “I don’t understand.” My Italian family and I consulted a dictionary, but I still couldn’t decipher a translation for the long green mass. Broad bean. My hosts enlightened me to the practical meaning of a fava in central Italy: you eat it. For the three short weeks it was in season, I eagerly consumed the favas paired with pecorino romano cheese.

FavaIt wasn’t unusual that I didn’t meet the fava bean until I left the country. The fava bean isn’t well known or well grown in the United States. The fava’s history extends back far before it’s appearance on the plate as an appertivo. In fact, fava beans are one of the first plants cultivated in the ancient world and can be traced back in our diet more than 8,000 years. They are believed to be the first beans Europeans ate.

Greek philosophers waged heated words in favor of and against the fava. “Avoid fava beans,” Pythagoras warned. The genetic disease favism can cause illness and even death. Yet, we chose to propagate the fava for the very chemical characteristic that could kill us.

My neighbor Jens just returned from an expedition in Burma where he cataloged frogs and amphibians. When I asked about his trip, he said, “I came down with malaria.”

“You didn’t eat your fava beans, did you?” I chastised. The G6PD deficiency favas cause in our blood can protect us from malaria. Humans stood to gain a great deal when they took a risk and ate favas. Our gene pool selected for people who could benefit from favas and overcome malaria. Favas helped our numbers prosper.

It might come as little surprise that Jack’s magical beans were most likely fava beans. Favas literally stand alone when it comes to beans growing straight up to the sky. Their stalks do not need support like other bean vines. And, as the narrative goes, fava beans can mysteriously turn strange looking beans into wealth. Jack got a hen that laid golden eggs out of the bargain, but more practically, fava beans help create rich soil.

A key reason fava beans are rare in the United States is because they are no longer used as a cover crop. Hayes Valley Farm selected to plant a plethora of fava beans for it’s an amazing ability to fix nitrogen into the soil. But most farms in the United States now use chemical fertilizers in place of a legume cover crop. Cover crops like favas also protect the soil like a blanket during the winter, holding in moisture and preventing erosion. Favas can grow in salty poor soil where other crops cannot. They rejuvenate the soil with nutrients and life. When it comes to soil, fava beans are truly magical.

Fava beans have played a significant role in our survival and success over the course of millennia. And, as Jack’s story epitomizes, they speak volumes of our desire for prosperity. But, they aren’t the only plant we have evolved with. Come join us Tuesday to discover more about our relationship to the apple, the tulip, marijuana and the potato.

All photos by Hayes Valley Farm, May-July 2010