The small flowers of the broad bean are typical of those of other legumes.
These mature fava/broad beans are ready are reading for shelling.
Broad bean plants grow erect, 3-5 ft (1-1.5 m) tall, on stout stems that are square in cross section. They need support to keep from falling over and they do not have tendrils like peas (Pisum sativum), nor do they twine as do beans (Phaseolus vulgaris). The leaves are pinnately compound with 2-6 leaflets. Leaves are grayish green and around 4-10 in (10-25 cm) long with each oblong leaflet about an inch or two (2-5 cm) in length. The fragrant flowers are much like those of other legumes: bilaterally symmetrical with five petals. The standard petal and the two keel petals are pure white and the two wing petals are white, each with a conspicuous black spot. Flowers are a little less than an inch (2.5 cm) long, and carried in clusters of 2-6. The fruits are thick and leathery pods, pale green and usually 6-10 in (15-25 cm) long. The large and flat seeds are nestled in a white wooly lining within the pods.
There are many cultivars available in Europe, especially in the U.K. and Italy. In North America, only a few can be found. ‘Aquadulce’ is a relatively early maturing variety. ‘Bonnie Lad’ is a small plant to just 14 in (35 cm) tall, with pods just 5-6 in (12-15 cm) long. ‘White Windsor’ and ‘Green Windsor’ have shorter and wider pods than other varieties and are said to have the best flavor. I’ve tried four varieties here in my Zone 8 garden and ‘Precoce A Grand Violetto’ has done the best and ‘Sweet Lorane’ a close second.
The wild ancestor or our cultivated broad bean is not known, but presumably grew in the eastern and southern Mediterranean region. Today broad beans are grown in temperate climates world-wide, especially in Europe and Asia. Broad beans are a mainstay of cuisine in the U.K. and parts of Italy. In much of southern China, broad beans are second only to soybeans in importance.
Broad beans require a long, cool growing season, usually 4-5 months from planting to harvest. That said, they among the easiest vegetables to grow. Just plant, provide something to hold them upright, and wait. Light: Broad beans should be grown in full sun. Moisture: Broad beans do best in a moist but well drained soil rich in organic matter. They do not tolerate soils that stay wet. They like a neutral to slightly acidic soil. Hardiness: USDA Zones 3 - 8. Of all the beans, broad beans are the hardiest. They can tolerate frosts and moderate freezes. In cooler climates they are planted in the spring for summer harvest, and in warmer climates they are planted in autumn and allowed to overwinter in the garden for spring harvest. They cannot be grown in tropical climates, and they suffer during the summer heat of temperate climates. Propagation: Seeds should be planted around 1.5 in (4 cm) deep and around 8-10 in (20-30 cm) apart in trellised rows 4-5 ft (1.2-1.5 m) apart. They take 7-14 days to germinate.
These broad bean pods will point downward when they are ripe.
Broad beans, properly prepared, are among the tastiest of vegetables. During growth and development the pods point upward. When they fill out and become ripe they point downward and it’s time to pick them.
Broad beans take a little effort to prepare, but it’s worth it. First shell the beans as you would any mature bean pod, then par boil the beans quickly in boiling water (30 seconds is enough) to loosen the skin that covers the kernel. Next drop the beans in ice water to stop the cooking. Finally remove the gray papery skin that covers each individual bean. You can usually make a tiny slit in one end of the bean and then pinch the shiny green kernel out of its tough jacket. The beans can then be eaten raw or cooked. Raw, they taste like edamame (Glycene max), only more buttery and with a stronger umami taste. Most chefs do not cook them at all. Very young pods can be eaten whole, like snap beans. Young leaves are prepared and eaten like spinach. Mature beans are used in certain hearty soups where they are cooked for a long time without removing the skins.
Many gardeners use broad beans as an over-wintering cover crop. Planted in the autumn, the plants fix nitrogen all winter, then are plowed into the ground to provide nitrogen and organic matter for the summer crop. Broad beans bred specifically for use as a cover crop are often called horse beans.
Broad beans have been cultivated for more than 6000 years. They are easy to grow, and the only bean that can survive even brief bouts of frost and freezing temperatures. Broad beans contain 23% protein, are rich in B vitamins and folate, and are an excellent source of fiber.
The genus Vicia includes around 140 species of weeds usually called some kind of vetch (like crown vetch, Coronilla varia. They grow in pastures, roadsides and waste places. The broad bean is the only member of the genus commonly consumed by humans.
And please, no cracks about liver and Chianti.
Some people ( a very small percentage) from southern Mediterranean regions are allergic to broad bean seeds, especially if eaten raw. Favism is a potentially fatal paralytic disorder caused by consumption of broad beans by those with the hereditary predisposition.