Wild bean (trailing wild bean)
Fabaceae [Steyermark: Leguminosae, Popilionoideae]
The modern seeds are oblong with square ends, 5-10 mm long and 2-3 mm wide, with a grayish brown scurfy outer coat (Figure 1). The linear marginal hilum is covered with white and bordered by a narrow black outline. The pods are 4-9 cm long (Figure 2). Strophostyles helvola is easily identified archaeologically due to its long, diagnostic hilum. It is also longer and narrower than other legumes. Smaller fragments of bean make identification more difficult because they can be easily confused with other legumes, including Phaseolus vulgaris L. and Phaseolus polystachios L.
Strophostyles helvola is found from the Middle Archaic through historic times in the Eastern Woodlands. Archaeological wild bean has been recovered in Alabama, Oklahoma, the Arkansas Ozarks, and Illinois. It has been consistently recovered in the American Bottom area, generally in low numbers (Johannessen 1984).
There are three species: Strophostyles umbellata (Muhlenb. ex. Willd.) Britton, Strophostyles leiosperma (Torry & A. Gray) Piper, and Strophostyles helvola. Strophostyles helvola is a herbaceous annual vine found in a variety of habitats, including beaches, thickets, open woods, open areas and old fields. Smith (1992:261) records finding wild bean in association with Chenopodium berlandieri which is not surprising given Chenopodium's need for nitrogen rich soil. Fritz also finds this association archaeologically in the Ozarks (1986). Strophostyles’ modern distribution is wider than its archaeological distribution. It is found from Quebec to Minnesota, South Dakota and Colorado, and south from Florida to Texas. Beans are available in the late summer and early autumn months.
Although some archaeological occurrences of wild bean could be the result of natural seed dispersion, as it does grow in disturbed soils, "...it has been recorded in frequencies great enough that one can conclude with near certainty that it was used as a food" (Asch and Asch 1985:387). Wild bean is smaller than common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), but it has similar nutritional value. "Furthermore, because it is substantially larger than indigenous starchy seed cultigens, it may have had subsistence value greater than its numbers would indicate" (Parker 1991:314). Wild beans were probably prepared in many of the same ways as cultivated beans. Although they could be eaten green, they were often dried. Ethnohistorically, the roots were boiled and mashed and used for food as well (Yanovsky 1936:38).
The Houma used Strophostyles helvola as a disease remedy, with a decoction of bean being taken for typhoid. The Iroquois used it as a dermatological aid, with the leaves being rubbed on parts affected by poison ivy or warts (Moerman 1986).
Asch, D. L. and N. B. Asch
1985 Archeobotany. In Smiling Dan: Structure and Function at a Middle Woodland Settlement in
Fritz, G. J.
1986 Prehistoric Ozark Agriculture: The University of Arkansas Rockshelter Collections.
1984 Paleoethnobotany. In American Bottom Archaeology, edited by C. Bareis and J. Porter,
Moerman, D. E.
1986 Medicinal Plants of Native America, Vol. 1. Technical Reports No. 19. Museum of
Parker, K. E.
1991 Sponemann Phase Archaeobotany. In The Sponemann Site: The Formative Emergent
Smith, B. D.
1992 Rivers of Change: Essays on Early Agriculture in Eastern North America. Smithsonian
1936 Food Plants of the North American Indians. United States Department of Agriculture