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A Floridata Plant Profile #862 Phaseolus lunatus
Common Names: butterbean, lima bean, seiva bean, butterpea
Family: Fabaceae/Leguminosae (bean Family)
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Perennial  Annual   Vine  Easy to grow - great for beginners! Edible Plant

lima bean pods
Immature lima bean pods grow plump in the late spring sunshine.
Lima beans (butterbeans in the South) are twining vines or herbaceous bushes, perennial in nature, but usually grown as annuals, even in the tropics. Some of the pole types can climb more than 12 ft (3.7 m) up a trellis or bean teepee. Some of the bush types stay under 2 ft (0.6 m) tall. The leaves have three leaflets, each 2-5 in (5-12.7 cm) long. The flowers are white to yellowish and quite small, usually less than 1 in (2.5 cm) in length. Depending on cultivar, the pods can be 2-6 in (5-15.24 cm) long and an inch or so wide. There are more than a hundred named lima bean cultivars. Cornucopia II lists 18 kinds of bush limas and 12 pole limas. 'Seiva' and 'Florida Speckled Butterbean' are prolific producers in Florida. The 'Butterpea' types are smaller, bush varieties popular in the southern U.S. Several of the bush and pole 'Fordhook' types are grown commercially. "Baby limas" are usually a bush type 'Fordhook'.

Lima beans came originally from Central and South America. Today they are cultivated in warm temperate, subtropical and tropical environments throughout the world and are the main food legume in tropical Africa.

lima bean vines
Every summer Steve's vegetable garden hosts a jungle of lima bean vines (and many other bean vines as well!)
Members of the legume family and capable of "fixing" their own nitrogen from the air (see Floridata's garden pea profile), lima beans do not need nitrogen fertilizer. Adding nitrogen to the soil will likely result in more vegetative growth and fewer bean pods. Bean leaf rollers (caterpillars of the long-tailed skipper butterfly) may damage some leaves but rarely are a serious problem. In my garden, I have to thwart the cardinals who, not content with the tons of sunflower seeds I give them, insist on digging up the bean seeds just as soon as the tiny emerging stems mark their locations.
Light: Full sun.
Moisture: Water lima beans regularly for best production.
Hardiness: USDA Zones 6 - 11. Lima beans are grown as annuals, but they require a longer and warmer growing season than green beans, garden peas or runner beans. Most of the pole types need 80-100 days to produce a crop and the bush types 65 days or so. Many of the lima bean cultivars will grow with vigor in the north but the season won't be long enough to produce a harvestable crop. On the other hand, limas usually won't set pods when temperatures stay over 85º F (29.4 ºC). In zones 8B-10, they keep putting on vegetative growth until early fall when they finally start cranking out the flowers and pods. Then they keep producing until the first frost.
Propagation: Sow lima bean seeds when the soil is at least 50ºF (10ºC), long after all danger of frost has past. Sow pole types 2-4 in (5-10 cm) deep and 4-8 in (10-20 cm) apart in rows 4 ft (1.2 m) apart for training on a trellis. If you plan to let them climb on a teepee, sow in hills 4-6 ft (1.2 m) apart. Bush types can be planted in rows just 2-3 ft (0.6-0.9 m) apart. Lima bean flowers are self pollinating, but they produce large amounts of nectar. Insects, especially bees, will cause cross-pollination between different varieties growing within less than a mile of each other. If you want to save your own seeds, grow just one type of lima at a time or cage the blossoms to prevent insects from getting to the flowers. Harvest the pods when dry and brown before they shatter and send their seeds all over the place; or, harvest when the pods are fully expanded and just starting to yellow, then dry them quickly. If your seeds are infected with bean weevils, freeze them for 48 hours after drying to kill the weevils. Dried bean seeds will maintain viability for several years if stored in a cool, dry, and dark place. I keep mine in a plastic box in the refrigerator (I hope the refrigerator light goes out when the door is closed.)

These Florida 'Speckled Butterbeans' have been left to dry on the vine.
Pick limas fresh or dried. They are ready for the "shelly" stage when the pods are bulging, but haven't yet turned yellow. Fresh lima beans generally are shelled and boiled, then used in soups, stews, and as vegetable side dishes. An old southwestern favorite is succotash - lima beans and corn. Simmer lima beans all day with a ham bone for a delicious soup. Use cooked lima beans cold in salads. In Japan they are fermented to make tempeh kara. The Chinese use sprouted lima beans in many dishes. Try mashing cooked limas with butter, then adding some onions. Dried lima beans are cooked by boiling and used in many of the same ways. Limas can be allowed to dry on the vine, or picked green and spread out to dry.

a basket of limabeans
A harvest of lovely lima beans. The green ones will be shelled, blanched and frozen; dried ones will be shelled and stored in a jar.
Lima beans have been found in Peruvian middens more than 8000 years old. There are more than 20 species of Phaseolus, four of which are commonly grown for food: lima beans, tepary beans (P. acutifolius), green beans (P. vulgaris), and runner beans (P. coccineus). There are many other legumes (members of the Fabaceae family) that also used as food plants by humankind. Two rather exotic species are the very high protein Goa bean (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus) and the lovely lablab or hyacinth bean(Dolichos lablab)

Wild lima beans have high concentrations of cyanogens and have caused serious cyanide poisonings. Some people are sensitive to the small amounts of cyanogenic glucosides in domestic lima beans and cannot eat them. Cooking removes most of these toxic compounds. Lima beans, including sprouted limas, probably should not be eaten raw.

Steve Christman 11/19/00; updated 8/16/03

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