Despite their origins in tropical America and their half-hardiness in the UK, few vegetables are more popular with British gardeners and family cooks than runner beans. While many favourite old varieties such as Scarlet Emperor and Enorma have been widely grown for many decades, Suffolk seedsman Mr Fothergills is keen to extol the advantages of modern, British-bred varieties, which are easier to grow, far more reliable, higher yielding and of superior flavour to their predecessors.
Leading the way is the new white-flowered cultivar Moonlight has been developed to overcome the problems associated with flower ‘set’. Using only traditional plant breeding techniques, a cross was made between runner beans and the related French bean. French beans naturally self-set and are nowhere near as fussy as runners about temperature and moisture. The resulting cross was carefully selected and refined for around eight years in Britain to develop this new strain, which has all the looks and flavour of a runner bean, but none of the growing problems.
As a result of its breeding, Moonlight is virtually self-setting, so low bee activity on cold days is not a problem. It is also much more tolerant of hot, dry conditions than traditional varieties, ensuring bumper crops whatever the British summer. The beans have a lovely crisp texture and also freeze better than traditional cultivars, which is just as well given its high yields. An added bonus with Moonlight is the pods are far less likely to turn ‘stringy’ than traditional types.
The company is offering nine British-bred runner beans for the 2013 season, all of which are bred to thrive in our uncertain and unpredictable summers. Seed can be sown under cover to give an early start or direct in the plants’ cropping positions. Traditional ‘scarlet runners’ with red flowers include the ultra-early Red Rum, sweet-flavoured Aintree, both of which hold an Award of Garden Merit (AGM) from the Royal Horticultural Society, and the small-podded, but heavy cropping Minnow. Runner Bean St George is well named, as it has red and white bicoloured flowers which form thick fleshy pods which are borne in clusters.
Runner bean plants can also be decorative, and none more so than pink flowered Celebration and Riley, both of which are AGM recipients. Celebration has long, fleshy, succulent pods, while Riley is especially tasty and crops through a long season.