Posted on 23 Comments

Three Neat Plants

Vigna unguiculata 'Pretzel Bean' at Hayefield

It’s been a while since I’ve trotted out some neat plants, and probably about as long since I’ve written about some interesting edibles. So, in this installment of Three Neat Plants, I present to you a trio of intriguing vegetables.

First up is one I mentioned in my last post. Like many heirloom vegetables, it travels under a variety of names: in this case, Vigna unguiculata ‘Pretzel Bean’, V. unguiculata ‘Ram’s Horn Bean’, or simply pretzel bean or ram’s horn bean. To further confuse matters, it’s in a different genus than ordinary garden beans (Phaseolus). Crops in the species Vigna unguiculata – which used to be known as Dolichos unguiculata – are most commonly known as cowpeas, southern peas, or black-eyed peas, but plants known as asparagus beans, yardlong beans, and noodle beans (like ‘Red Noodle’, below) also belong here.

Bean 'Red Noodle' with Ipomoea x multifida at Hayefield

Well, the names may be muddled, but once you see pretzel beans (or whatever you want to call them), you won’t confuse them with anything else.

According to the 1920 English edition of The Vegetable Garden by MM. Vilmorin-Andrieux, “Ram’s-horn bean” was introduced years before that book was released, and it’s also mentioned in the 1881 edition of Henderson’s Handbook of Plants by Peter Henderson (as Dolichos bicontortis),so it’s been around for a good while. After searching for the seeds for many years, I finally scored some from Amishland Seeds this past spring.

The twining vines started flowering when they were less than 2 feet tall, and they kept blooming and setting pods until frost. (At that point, the vines had outgrown their 4-foot cage and had flung themselves onto a nearby currant bush, for a total height of 6 to 7 feet.) The buds turn from green to ivory, and then open to pinkish purple flowers…

Vigna unguiculata 'Pretzel Bean' flower at Hayefield

Vigna unguiculata 'Pretzel Bean' flowers at Hayefield

…which quickly begin forming pods.

Vigna unguiculata 'Pretzel Bean' at Hayefield

The developing pods start out straight but soon curve downward and then curl back in.

Vigna unguiculata 'Pretzel Bean' at Hayefield

Picked at this stage, the fresh pods have a nice crunch and pretty good beany flavor. (To be honest, I nibbled only on one or two, because I wanted to harvest as many seeds as possible.)

Vigna unguiculata 'Pretzel Bean' at Hayefield

The maturing pods soon turn yellow and eventually dry to brown, so they look even more pretzel-like. Some of the flowering shoots produce only one or two pairs of flowers. Others bear multiple pairs that open in stages, so you get pods in a range of colors in each cluster.

Vigna unguiculata 'Pretzel Bean' at Hayefield

The clusters of pods form on 6- to 8-inch long stems, which makes harvesting the mature pods super-easy. I waited until all of the pods in each group were evenly brown and hard, then snipped off their stem at the main vine and stuck them in a vase to dry.

Vigna unguiculata 'Pretzel Bean' seedpods at Hayefield

The pods are sturdy enough that if you crack them carefully, they’ll keep their shape even after you remove the seeds, so you can use them for crafts or general silliness.

Poor Duncan!

The seeds are edible too, but as I’ve given away all but a few of them, I can’t speak to the flavor or how best to prepare them.

Vigna unguiculata 'Pretzel Bean' seeds at Hayefield

My pretzel beans weren’t noticeably bothered by pests, though ants liked to hang out around the flowers. (You can see them if you look closely at the flower pictures above.) A few references indicate that ants pollinate the flowers of another species of VignaV. caracalla, a.k.a. corkscrew or snail vine – and as I didn’t notice any aphids on the plants, I’m guessing that that’s what the ants were doing on the pretzel beans.

Those of you who requested pretzel bean seeds from my last post should have a lot of fun growing these next summer. A couple of commercial sources include Amishland Seeds and Terrior Seeds.

I’ve written before about some oddball tomatoes, in The Novelty Factor. Normally, you’d grow tomatoes for their flavor, of course, but if you have nothing better to do, you can also try varieties with interesting foliage.

Most tomatoes are “regular-leaf” varieties, with relatively slender, toothed leaflets.

Tomato 'Variegata' leaves at Hayefield

Above is ‘Variegata’; below is ‘Silvery Fir Tree’. These are both regular-leaf varieties.

Tomato 'Silvery Fir Tree' leaves at Hayefield

Other tomatoes are “potato-leaf” types, with distinctly broader leaflets that have smoother edges, like the leaf on the left below (of ‘Galina’s Yellow’).

Tomato leaves 'Galina's Yellow' and 'Velue Striee' at Hayefield

I’ve been growing tomatoes since I was a kid, so I can’t even remember how long ago it was that I noticed these different leaf types, though it took me a while to find out that they actually had names. What I didn’t know until this year is that there is such a thing as an “angora” tomato: an extra-fuzzy version of a regular-leaf tomato. You can see an example on the right, above.

Last winter, a Hayefield reader (thanks, RH!) sent me seeds of ‘Velue Striée’ (which sounds ever so much more elegant than the English ‘Hairy Streaked’).

Tomato 'Velue Striee' at Hayefield

Tomato 'Velue Striee' at Hayefield

The foliage, stems, and buds of this angora tomato are densely covered with short, velvety hairs, giving the plant a distinct grayish cast.

Tomato 'Velue Striee' at Hayefield

Tomato 'Velue Striee' at Hayefield

Oh, yeah – it does set fruit too, if that matters to you. The unripe tomatoes are quite attractive…

Tomato 'Velue Striee' at Hayefield

…and so are the ripe fruits.

Tomato 'Velue Striee' at Hayefield

The flavor? That’s a good question, but I really can’t answer it fairly. As much as I enjoyed growing and petting the plants, they had one curious trait: the ripening fruits were absolute magnets for leaf-footed bugs. These pests didn’t bother any of the eight other tomato varieties I was growing in the same area, but on ‘Velue Striée’, the fruits were so damaged that I didn’t get to taste any until right before frost, and that one (the one above) really didn’t have much flavor at all.

So, why did I ever bother mentioning ‘Velue Striée’ as a Neat Plant? Well, if you like unusual edibles enough to grow other oddballs, this one definitely qualifies, and maybe you wouldn’t have the same pest problem in your garden (or maybe you’d be willing to take steps to deal with it). Seeds of ‘Velue Striée’ are available from Heritage Tomato Seed. There are also some other angora tomato varieties you could try instead, such as Angora Orange’ and ‘Angora Super Sweet’.

And for dessert, how about a little fruit, in the form of ground cherries?

The name confusion around ground cherries is even more muddled than that of pretzel beans. The first time I grew them was around seven years ago, as ‘Aunt Molly’s’ ground cherry (Physalis pruinosa) from Seed Savers Exchange.

Ground cherry seeds at Hayefield

They reseeded for a while and then disappeared. A few years ago, I ordered “pineapple tomatillo” from Pinetree Garden Seeds on a whim, and it turned out to be very similar, if not identical, to my old friend ‘Aunt Molly’s’.

For a jump start, you can sow the seeds indoors in early to midspring as you would tomatoes; or, simply sow them directly in the garden. (The plants are likely to seed around, so after the first year, you probably won’t have to think about planting them again for a while.)

Ground cherry at Hayefield

Ground cherries start flowering quickly and keep producing fruit until frost. It’s a good thing that they’re productive, because there’s really nothing very pretty about the plants: the light yellow flowers are small and mostly hidden under the leaves. They develop into round fruits inside of a green husk that ages to tan. (Little wonder that ground cherries are sometimes called “husk tomatoes.” They’re not tomatoes, however, though they are in the same family.)

Ground cherry at Hayefield

The developing fruits of ground cherry look something like those of Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi), but the latter has orange husks.

Ground cherry at Hayefield

Here, the plants usually get 1 to 2 feet tall. As you can see, they’re not very ornamental. And flea beetles love the leaves, so the foliage frequently looks very “holey.”

Ground cherry at Hayefield

If you’re thinking that they look a lot like weeds, you’d be right: ground cherries do grow wild in many parts of the U.S.. The flavor is variable, though, so if you want to give ground cherries a try, I’d suggest buying seeds so you can have a better chance of getting a strain that other people seem to enjoy.

Ground cherry at Hayefield

Aaaaand, that gets me to the quirky part about ground cherries: the flavor. It’s very hard to accurately describe – maybe a little like a regular cherry, if you use your imagination, or a sweet cherry tomato, but also with a touch of pineapple. The texture is kind of unusual, too: firmer than a real cherry – more like a crispy green grape or a gooseberry – and with lots of seeds. The seeds are soft and tiny, so you just crunch them up when you chew, but they do add a bit of something to the experience.

Ground cherry at Hayefield

I don’t suppose all that adds up to a rousing recommendation, does it? But really, I think that ground cherries are worth growing at least once, so you can taste them for yourself and see what you think. You rarely see the fruits for sale in grocery stores, but as they’re pretty popular with the PA Dutch folks in this area, we can sometimes find them in local farm stands. And in late summer to early fall, ground cherry aficionados flock to area diners for ground cherry pie.

Ground cherry crumb pie

I’ve always eaten my ground cherries straight from the plant (or rather, from the ground), so for the sake of research, I bought my first ground cherry pie this year. I can’t say I’m a big fan: one slice was enough for me. But there are lots of different recipes, of course, so maybe it’s just a matter of experimenting. Apparently they can also be interesting in chutneys and jams as well.

Ground cherry at Hayefield

As I mentioned, though, my favorite way to eat ground cherries is to wait until they drop from the plant, then peel back the papery husk and eat the ripe fruit right in the garden. You don’t even need to think about cleaning them first, since they come individually wrapped!

If my wishy-washy description hasn’t scared you off, you can find seeds of ground cherries from a number of sources, including Pinetree Garden Seeds (as pineapple tomatillo) and Trade Winds Fruit (as Aunt Molly’s ground cherry). Territorial Seed Company lists pineapple ground cherry and ‘Aunt Molly’s’ ground cherry separately, so you could do a side-by-side taste test if you’re feeling adventurous.

Speaking of seeds…it was so exciting to see the amazing response to the seed offer in my last post. The seeds are now all divided, packed up, and ready to head out to their new homes, so they should be arriving in the next week or two. I did my best to fill all of the orders fairly, and though I couldn’t provide large quantities, and sometimes I wasn’t able to provide all of the seeds each person asked for, I hope you’ll have a good time trying out what you get!

Posted on 23 Comments

23 thoughts on “Three Neat Plants

  1. Love ground cherries, don’t even have to plant them anymore, they reseed freely in my veg garden, easy to pull if you don’t want them in a certain area. I leave them among the corn, they aren’t in the way there. I like them fresh out of the garden too. Ummy.
    Can’t wait for the seeds to arrive, don’t need many in a pack anyways, companies put way to many seeds in their packs. Good thing for gardening friends, everybody loves to try new things and its fun to see how they grow in other gardens.
    Thanks again and have a great day!

    Yay – I’m glad to hear that you like ground cherries too, Sue. And I wish you great luck with the seeds. I know you will put them to good use.

  2. Interesting plants….What is the name of the plant with those long reddish brown beans? Are they good to eat?

    That is Vigna unguiculata ‘Red Noodle’. I’ve not tried them myself, but I understand that yes, they are edible.

    By the way, you can usually find plant ID information for each photo here by moving your cursor over the image.

  3. Nancy,
    I just found your blog so I missed the seed offer…but in case you have any seeds left of the plant Atriplex hortensis ‘Rubra’ (red orach), I would love some.

    Looking forward to more posts….

    I’m so sorry, Laura – I am completely wiped out of seeds. You can find the Atriplex seeds at Plant World Seeds or Google to find others.

  4. Nancy, wow, I just started reading through some of your posts, I am so inspired by your beautiful garden. The plants combinations are so beautiful and your pictures are amazing. I wish I could just come and visit your garden.

    I recently got some coleus to root and I have it outside in zone 15/16 (Bay Area). It recently got some leaf spots from the cold, so I wonder what you do with yours? Do you take it indoors? I love the lime color, and it is such an easy plant to propagate, I would hate to lose it.

    Thank you!

    Welcome to Hayefield, Laura! I have to buy new coleus plants every year, because I keep the house too cold in winter for them to overwinter inside.

    1. I will try to bring mine inside, I was hoping not to buy them again….

      Good luck with them, Laura!

  5. Always looking for the abnormal. Fits my personality.

    Can I reply “no comment” to a comment? No, that would probably not be cool. And anyway, I obviously like the abnormal too!

  6. I can’t wait to grow the pretzel beans.
    I grew ground cherries some 20+ years ago. The flavor is really interesting. I was able to collect enough to make a pie…it was very tasty. Plants are still sprouting up here and there after all these years.

    “Really interesting” is a good way to describe the flavor, Mel. It’s amazing that you’ve had them for so long. Maybe I’d have more seedlings if I didn’t grab all of the ripe fruits for snacking.

  7. Your description of the ground cherries makes me think that chutney is exactly the right thing to do with them! I do wish that I had asked for some of the pretzel beans, but I appreciate that you listed sources for procuring some! They will go on my list! Great post! ~Lynda

    I’ve never eaten chutney, so I can’t give a first-hand recommendation, but a Google search turned up lots of recipes. I hope you’ll enjoy the other seeds I sent along.

  8. I will have to be on the lookout for some of those pretzel beans, very neat.

    Love trying unusual veggies. Too bad a lot of warmer weather crops didn’t do as well this year, I was looking forward to trying the unusual eggplants I grew, including S. quitoense. I did get to taste the “peach vine” (Cucumis melo var. chito), which was different.

    My favorite this year had to be the purple podded ‘Shiraz’ snowpeas. Even the flowers were lovely.

    I’ve found groundcherries are kind of like cilantro, either people love them or they hate them. I enjoy the taste (though could do without all the seeds…)- agree that it is sort of a mixture of fruit flavors. Guess you could call it fruit-salad- like then, lol! ;-) I found them very good baked with blueberries in a crisp- not sure I could eat a pie made entirely of them!

    Ps. do you start your red orach indoors or direct sow? I’ve tried a number of times to grow (DS) it, butwith no luck.

    Great post Nan! Always learn something new here…

    Hey, Christin. You really do grow some unusual edibles. I’ll have to give that peach vine a try. Mixing the ground cherries with blueberries is an interesting idea.

    I let my Atriplex self-sow each year, and the seedlings start appearing even before frosts are fully over in spring. Maybe try sowing the seeds in a pot in winter and leaving the pot outside?

  9. Glad to see the red noodle beans again, thanks to you they’ve been on my want list for a few years now. I think it was a picture of the beans with some love in a puff that did me in.

    I think I need to grow the ‘Red Noodle’ again next year. Hmmm…I wonder if it would cross with the pretzel bean if I grew them on the same arbor. Maybe we’d have ‘Red Pretzel’ beans for 2014!

  10. Those curly beans are so fun! Make a great Llama ornament, too. Cool post!

    Hah – we call them “alpaca glasses” around here, Hoov. Though the boys would probably rather eat them than wear them.

  11. Hi Nan, it’s always “dangerous” to read one of your posts as it makes my lists of wants that much longer. I think I’ll try pretzel beans in my garden next summer!

    I think the May Dreams Gardens faeries would have a great time with them, Carol.

  12. Nan, what is the orange blooming vine behind the red noodle beans…

    The beans are growing with cardinal climber (Ipomoea x multifida) — the lacy leaves and little red flowers.

  13. Hi Nan, love your 3 neat plants. The Ram’s-horn bean is really different and interesting looking. Also like the soft fuzzy tomato leaves. In fact you have inspired me to seek out interesting and unusual foliage plants.

    I planted out my tomato seedlings a couple weeks ago, lots of heirlooms but I must admit I grow them for the fruit not foliage. But I have yet to eat a tomato grown in the US from the farmers’ market heirloom ones that taste as good as the best ones here, I think they need lots of sunshine to really develop the best flavour. Maybe in Florida or Southern California they can get enough sunshine but I haven’t been to farmers’ markets there.

    By co-incidence I am also growing ground cherries! (for the first time).In September in Geneva I was picking up loads of seeds at a nursery (got 30 packets) and at the urging of my friend I got a packet of ground cherry seeds. I do quite like the fruit and hope they fruit well for me and also reseed. The plants are now about 8-10 inches tall.

    Oh, the thought of a sun-warmed, perfectly ripe tomato has me drooling on my keyboard. It’s going to be a loooong time until tomato season returns to Pennsylvania. Enjoy your harvest, and your ground cherries, too, Nicole.

  14. So many peculiar things you have “over there”! Havn´t seen any of those!!

    Hi there, Susie. I’m glad I was able to show you something new. You could probably grow the ground cherries and pretzel beans, if you were so inclined; I’m not sure how tomatoes do for you.

  15. Hi Nan— loved the post. I grew only a few feet of Japanese Yardlong beans last season… they outgrew and outproduced all other beans in the garden, We found the flavor is so much better – a fabulous plant.

    My labradors loved them too… and would wait with tails wagging wildly for me to toss the over sized ones their way. Very funny watching them eat them- like toddlers with spaghetti…

    Please know that for some of us… getting seeds from you is a heck of a lot better than Santa Claus! Packaging those seeds had to have been a lot of work. Please know it is appreciated before hand.

    How fun, Kay – I can just imagine the dogs chowing down on the yardlong beans. I think I will have to grow the ‘Red Noodle’ again just to see what the alpacas think of them!

  16. Hey Nan,
    just have to say the Llama pic…that is a “spectacle”
    haha thanks for a good laugh. Always needed on a Monday.

    Oh nooooo, Rick – that was soooo bad (but brilliant).

  17. Yay! I really do love your “Three Neat Plants” expose!

    The ground cherry is something I really, REALLY badly want to try! Especially the purple kind, as I heard they’re great in salsas!
    I bought myself a food processor over the summer, and it’s great for making single-serving salsas… but I didn’t have enough tomatoes to really warrant a good yield! I’m going to use tomatillo’s instead, as I did hear they spread like weeds~! I love plants that can fend for themselves…
    I am one of those strange people that just LOVES tomato foliage! The more interesting, the better! That dusty grey is very lovely! Shame the fruit didn’t bode well for you… there’s always another year!
    And those BEANS! I love my pole bean… maybe I shall look into this Ram’s head one… I wonder if Baker Creek supplies it…

    Decisions, decisions… Spring 2013 cannot come fast enough! :D

    I’m totally with you, Donna – there’s a lot to be said for plants that do their thing without help from us – and taste good (or at least interesting) too. I can easily imagine you appreciating the pretzel bean, but you even like the tomato? That’s so cool!

  18. I’ve had a rough couple of work weeks, working overtime and then some, and even having to cancel 2 vacation days to meet a deadline, except I didn’t meet it and I have to work tomorrow too. (My company is now on a use-it-or-lose-it vacation policy so none of this is good.) And the rest of my household (m-i-law and husband) are down with bad colds and sinus infections, and lying around the house looking miserable, and I’m trying to avoid the germs and take care of all the dogs and cook, do dishes, etc, And then day before yesterday I got the mail and there was an envelope from you with several packets of seeds. What a cheerful sight! I was almost the last person to request seeds, and I’m so touched and pleased that you were able to send some to me. You are an inspiration, and a lifesaver besides. Thanks so much!

    Aw, Deborah – it sounds like you deserve a lot more than a few packets of seed right now. But if they made you feel even a tiny bit more cheerful, then I couldn’t be more pleased. Take care and think spring!

    1. I made it through those weeks just fine. Now the holiday frenzy looks like no big deal. And it’s hard to not think spring, the weather has been so mild, even here in the Catskills! Have a wonderful holiday and thanks again. My resolution for the new year will be to do better myself at seed saving. You’re an inspiration!

      Good for you, Deborah! It’s been relatively mild here as well; even the bulbs are starting to come up. I’m already starting to think about spring seed-starting. You have a great holiday too!

  19. Nan, you grow some very interesting plants. I love them. I think I’ll have to get some of those beans if just to place them dried in a jar. I love that kind of harvest decor. Merry Christmas.~~Dee

    Thanks, Dee! I think you’d really enjoy the pretzel beans in the garden as well as inside. Merry Christmas to you too!

  20. Nan, i’ve also had adventures growing plants in the nightshade/potato family. A few years ago I tried ground cherries as well as a fruit called a “pepino dulce” aka melon pear ‘Solanum muricatum’.

    Melon pear seeds are available from Thompon Morgan. If you’ve never tried it please do. You’ll love the look. So odd! Like a tomato plant covered in green and purple striped giant eggs.The taste is so so but better than ground cherries if memory serves.

    Do people out your way ever grow garden huckleberries ? Its another weird edible nightshade with tiny purple fruits. I’ve never tried it myself.

    PS – Seeds arrived today. Thank you ! Also I ordered your book on fallscaping for my grandma’s Christmas present. I know she’ll enjoy it.

    — Jesse

    Thanks ever so much for the suggestion, Jesse – I’ve put melon pear on my must-order list. As far as the huckleberries, I’ve grown (and written about) a kind more commonly called wonderberry (Solanum burbankii); they were pretty good.

    Merry Christmas to you – and to your grandma, too!

  21. I received my seeds, thank you very much. Teresa Gordon

    I appreciate you letting me know, Theresa. Enjoy!

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