What are Lima Beans?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Lima beans are a type of legume native to South America. These highly nutritious beans are known by a number of alternate names, including Haba beans, sugar beans, butter beans, Guffin beans, civet beans, Hibbert beans, Pallar beans, Sieva beans, Madagascar beans, and Burma beans. For people who prefer precision, the scientific name is Phaseolus lunatus, and the beans come in two sizes, with larger beans believed to be native to the Andes, while smaller beans were cultivated in other parts of Mesoamerica.

Lima beans.
Lima beans.

In addition to coming in two sizes, lima beans also come in numerous cultivars that may have distinctive coloration patterns. Typically, the beans are green to creamy white, with a starchy flavor that also has a hint of smooth richness. Most markets carry dried beans, and it is also possible to find them canned in many shops. When they are in season, fresh lima beans can be found at some farmers' markets, and they are certainly worth a try. People in temperate zones can also try their hands at growing the plants themselves.

Lima beans are native to South America, where they were first cultivated.
Lima beans are native to South America, where they were first cultivated.

The timeline for the domestication of lima beans is a bit murky. The beans are certainly very old, and they definitely originated in South America before drifting northwards. By the time European settlers reached the Americas, native Americans were cultivating these beans and other legumes as an important part of their diets. The beans were undoubtedly one of the first products brought back to Europe, where they became quite popular, unlike the poor tomato, which had to endure decades of ignominies before it was finally accepted as a food.

Large lima beans are believed to be native to the Andes.
Large lima beans are believed to be native to the Andes.

In cooking, lima beans can be used like other beans in a wide range of dishes including soups and stews. They can also be pureed to make a bean spread, or included in salads and chili. The beans pair well with a broad number of foods, and they are also enjoyable plain.

Like lima beans, rattlesnake beans are popular in stews.
Like lima beans, rattlesnake beans are popular in stews.

Depending on the cultivar, lima beans can either grow in the form of a bush or a vine that requires trellising. They tend to mature quickly, so some gardeners like to stagger their plantings to prolong the availability of fresh beans. The plants grow best in a temperate climate, and they should be planted after damp, cold weather is no longer a risk, as wet conditions can retard growth. In climates with cold springs, seedlings can be started in a greenhouse and transplanted.

Lima beans may be used in chili.
Lima beans may be used in chili.

Like other beans, lima beans appreciate some room to grow, and they should be staked to reduce the risk of rotting pods. Fresh beans can be harvested at any times once the pods grow large enough, or they can be left on the branch to dry out for the purpose of making dried beans for storage. Be aware that some beans develop cyanide compounds, so make sure to cook them very well before eating them.

It's not unusual to include lima beans in a salad.
It's not unusual to include lima beans in a salad.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

yournamehere

So do pole lima beans and bush lima beans differ, or is it just a different way of growing the same plant?

closerfan12

Lima beans are very nutritious as well. Like most beans, they are a good source of cholesterol-lowering fiber.

They are also good at keeping your blood sugar regular, which is really helpful for those with diabetes.

Some people even say they can prevent heart attacks, give you iron, and provide antioxidants. It's all out there one the net, if you just look up "lima beans nutritional information" you'll find more lima bean information than you ever thought existed!

naturesgurl3

Huh -- who knew that lima beans have been around for that long? Or that they can develop cyanide, for that matter! You learn something new every day.

That kind of makes me want to grow lima beans more, actually -- they sound so interesting!

Very good article, thanks!

obsessedwithloopy

The fast growing locust tree is a good neighbor to lima beans.

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