- all cultures - ancient - e.g., lentils
- fix nitrogen
- Fabaceae (about 18,000 spp.)
- protein: must be detoxified
- steps in domestication, indehiscent pods
- Major legumes
- broad beans
- New World: Phaseolusspp., peanuts
- China: soybeans (Glycine max), Vignaspp.
- Africa: Vigna unguiculata pigeon peas
Legumes - seeds of members of the Fabaceae - p. 137-138
Legumes are second only to the grasses in their importance to humans and our domestic animals. Every
major civilization has been based on a cereal grain as well as a legume.
Legumes are by
definition all members of the Fabaceae or Leguminosae. This is a large family with perhaps 16,000
species. Usually broken down into three subfamilies. Almost all important crop legumes in the
Faboideae or Papilionoideae. The fruit is a legume. This is a single carpel that splits along
two longitudinal margins at maturity to release its seeds. Commonly known as "pods".
Many important legumes in table on page 143. Diagram of legume flowers and fruits p. 137-138.
The roots of most legumes form associations with bacteria that are capable of fixing atmospheric
nitrogen. These Rhizobiumspecies live in nodules on the roots. They provide free
fertilizer. Flowering plants cannot use atmospheric nitrogen but must absorb nitrate or ammonium
nitrogen through the roots. Nitrogen cycle on pg. 140.
Legumes also are rich in protein (which contains nitrogen). See table on pg. 142 for nutritional
composition. Many are in the 20-30% range. They also contain some fats and usually less starches
than cereal grains. Amino acid composition is different and these seeds contain more of some amino
acids than cereal grains do.
The seeds of almost all legumes are toxic if eaten uncooked because of proteins or peptides that
inhibit digestive enzymes.
World production... see page 144. Discuss what common beans are.
There are many ancient cultivars. Near East and Europe: peas, broad
beans, lentils, and garbanzos. New World: common beans, lima beans, and
peanuts South East Asia and China: soy beans, mung beans (Vigna aureus) and adjuki bean
Africa: black-eyed pea, pigeon pea.
- Legumes fix nitrogen.
- Legumes are rich in protein.
- Legumes are easily stored, harvested, etc.
Legumes in a market
Domestication of legumes
Lentils one of oldest. Wild small-seeded legumes used. By 6000 B.C. peas, vetch ( Viciasp.),
bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia), and garbanzos were already cultivated. In Africa Vigna
by 2000 B.C. In the Americas, Phaseolus coccineusin Tamps. by 5000 B.C. wild harvested. By
4000 B.C., P. vulgarisand P. lunatuswere cultivated in Peru. etc.
Many domesticated legumes have lost the ability to reseed themselves. Pods of cultivars are
These legumes (Lens culinaris) are among the most ancient of cultivated crops. They go back
8000-9000 years in the Near East. They are found in archaeological sites before that, but as is the
case for cereal grains, it is difficult to sort out what is cultivated and what is not. Esau sold
his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentils. By 2200 B.C., they appear in Egyptian tombs. They
are especially high in protein. Lentils are particularly important in India today. They have many
different kinds of "dhal". They are drought resistant.
In the U.S. mostly in Washington and Idaho in the Palouse Prairies.
Peas (Pisum sativum) are also an extremely old crop from the Near Eastern center. They go
back at least 9000 years. They may have also come from Ethiopia and Central Asia. In the Middle
Ages in Europe, dried peas made up a major part of the diet of peasants. Still very important
there, especially in Eastern Europe. People didn't eat "green peas" until about the 1700's,
however. Although mostly of a novelty for us, peas are the fourth most important legume crop
Broad beans ( Vicia faba) were also domesticated in the Near Eastern Center. The cultivation
of these beans goes back to Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, etc. The only common bean in Europe
before 1492. Production spread to Asia at some time in the past and today China is the world's
largest producer of broad beans.
The Spanish brought them to the New World. They grow best in a cool climate. Canada produces more
than the U.S. They cause "favism" in some people that eat them. A genetic disorder.
Garbanzos or chick peas
Another legume from the Near Eastern Center that was cultivated by 7400 years ago. This species may
have arisen in Northeast Africa. By 2000 B.C. they were introduced into India. India now grows 79%
of world's crop. Cultivation spread around the Mediterranean and they were brought to the New World
by the Spanish and Portugese.
Soybeans (Glycine max) arose in China. They go back there at least 7000 years. In Chinese
literature before 1000 B.C. About 38% protein and 18% fats and oils. The amino acid content is
especially good. They also serve as a source of edible oils.
In the orient soybeans are eaten in many different ways. They are converted to miso, tofu, okara,
soy milk, soy sauce, curd, cheeses, greens (sprouts), etc.
Although soybeans were introduced to Europe quite early, they never became popular. Pennsylvania by
1804. Until the 1940's they never really were grown much in the United States. Benjamin Franklin
was sent a sample of seeds and both he and Thomas Jefferson grew them.
The coagulated protein is called tofu.
Most of the U.S. soybean crop is consumed indirectly. Over half of our production is exported.
Much is used in this country as "texturized vegetable protein". About 15% of crop used for
industrial purposes. Soy beans are the most important bean crop in the world.
Pigeon peas (Cajanus cajan) are commonly cultivated in the Caribbean area, although they are
native to Africa and were introduced by black slaves. They go back perhaps 4000 years in Africa.
This legume is also widely cultivated in India, which grows 95% of the world's crop. They do well on
In a similar manner, Vigna unguiculata, was domesticated in Africa and brought to the Americas
by black slaves. Other species of the genus are also widely cultivated in Asia. These or related
species were in India by "Sanskrit times". Romans and Greeks knew them.
They are mostly grown in Texas, Georgia, Oklahoma, and the Carolinas in the U.S.
Asian Vigna species.
Many species of this genus are cultivated in Asia. Among these are the black gram or urd bean
(Vigna mungo), the mung bean (V. aureus), the adjuki bean (V. angularis) and
others. These are usually included in "bean" statistics and make them difficult to interpret.
The lima bean, Phaseolus lunatus, may have been independently domesticated in Mexico and in
northern South America. It appears to have spread southward into other
parts of South America. The oldest cultivated materials are from Peru (7000-10000 years old).
Domestication may have arisen in several different areas. In 1492, they were cultivated from Canada
These are usually perennials in the tropics. Many lima beans are highly toxic unless prepared
properly. This is not true in the United States and Europe, however.
Scarlet runner bean.
This bean (Phaseolus coccineus) is an ancient cultivar in Mexico. They are still commonly
eaten there and this is a common bean in Europe.
Scarlet runner beans
Kidney beans, pinto beans, navy beans, black beans, green beans, wax beans, snap beans, etc. are all
Phaseolus vulgaris. They were domesticated in Mexico and South America and almost certainly
were domesticated several times. Fossil cultivated beans go back 7000 years in Mexico and almost
as far in Peru.
Beans were commonly cultivated in all parts of the Americas when Columbus came. This species is the
second or third most important bean crop in the world.
The American Indians commonly cultivated these with squash and corn. This was partly to provide
support for the beans which were viny.
The peanut or groundnut (Arachis hypogaea) is native to central South America and was
probably domesticated by the Guaraní Indians. By 2000 B.C. cultivated in Peru. The Portugese
took peanuts to several parts of the world in the early 1500's and it is now hard to tell that they
are not native. They were widely cultivated in Africa and were brought back to the Americas by
Peanuts are an important crop in the southeastern U.S. in sandy soils. They largely replaced cotton
in the South after the boll weevil became a major pest about 1900. Peanuts are widely eaten in
West Africa today.
This is the second most important legums, but are often not eaten directly.
This legume contains more oil than most. Peanut oil is widely used in West Africa and in France.
Usually used to fondue because of its higher temperature properties.
The fruits are borne under the ground. Much U.S. production goes into peanut butter.
Aflatoxin is a major problem.
Tamarind and Carob
Tamarinds (Tamarindus indica) have been used in tropical Africa and Asia for thousands of
years. The sticky pulp has a sour taste and is the part used. They are used in many types of
sauces. See diagram pg. 152.
Carob (Ceratonia siliqua) has also been cultivated in the Near East for thousands of years.
The fruits have long been used to feed livestock. Carob is currently used as a chocolate substitute
and as a source of "locust gum".
Many of the pods eaten formerly in Argentina and Chile. Called "patay". Made from Prosopis
Top of page
Revised January 2005
© David S. Seigler, Integrative Biology 363, Plants and Their Uses,
Department of Plant Biology, 265 Morrill Hall, 505 S. Goodwin Ave., University of Illinois, Urbana,
Illinois 61801, USA. 217-333-7577. firstname.lastname@example.org.