Five Lessons Learned from an Heirloom Bean

Barksdale Wax Pole Beans - growing beans

Barksdale Wax Pole Bean was one of the two first bean varieties I started saving seed from, back in 1984. In 1983 Jerreth’s grand parents obtained the seed from  the Claude Barksdale family, who in turn got their seed from Aunt Lavera Halsclaw. Aunt Lavera was 101 years old when she passed the seed on to the Barksdales. She had grown it for 40 or 50 years and didn’t recall where she’d gotten it from. Jerreth’s grandparents recounted seeing this bean in the Barksdales garden back when they were neighbors, out in the country. So, my guess is that their collective memory traced the bean back to the early 1900s or late 1800s in the Salem, Illinois area.

Barksdale Wax Pole Bean, Barksdale Bean, Barksdale Pole Bean, climbing yellow bean
Here We catch a Barksdale Wax Pole Bean plant as it “mugs” a neighboring tomato plant.

In 1984 I was very new at seed saving. Every year I learn more about preservation of old varieties. I’d like to share five lessons I’ve learned from this bean.

Sandhill Preservation Center Carries Barksdale Wax Pole Bean Seed

Barksdale Wax Pole Bean taught me that Old Varieties Can Be Fragile.

When Grandma and Grandpa gave us Barksdale seed, we gave them some seed to another heirloom. Five years later we learned that they liked the other variety so well that they had lost Barksdale! We never had contact with the Barksdale family, so, for all intents and purposes this bean had a close call with extinction. Old time gardeners sometimes have heirlooms but don’t recognize the treasure they have.

Barksdale Wax Pole Bean taught me the critical importance of sharing seed.

In 1988 our family left to serve as missionaries in Mexico. Our living conditions were not stable. In spite of my efforts I lost this bean by 1991.  A little Mexican campesino actually yanked my entire planting, vines, pods and all, and ran off with them. However, I had shared seed through the Seed Savers Exchange. In 1999 Mike Deyo, of Killbuck, Ohio sent me another start of this seed and we’ve grown it ever since.

Barksdale taught me that it may take decades to truly get to know a variety.

I’ve grown this bean in two countries and five states. Sometimes it did well, other times it didn’t. With time and experimentation I figured out that, though the plants handle heat quite well, the flowers won’t pollinate when nights are dry and warm. Some years I’d plant this one early in the growing season and it would barely produce. By the time cooler weather arrived, in late summer, the vines were bedraggled and didn’t do well.  If planted in mid summer, however, they reach maturity just as cooler nights arrive. Then… the harvest is plentiful!

One slight change in culture can convert and “okay variety” into an “outstanding variety!”

Barksdale Wax Pole Bean, Barksdale Pole Bean, Barksdale Wax Bean, climbing wax bean, climbing yellow podded bean
Barksdale Wax Pole Bean produces large, easy to pick pods.


Barksdale Wax Pole Bean taught me the importance of keeping written records.

On Keeping A Garden Notebook

Over the years I’ve discovered that my memory has morphed in the recounting of this bean’s history. Yes! I’ve found that details such as how long Jerreth’s grandparents had this bean and when I lost or regained the seed will not only drop out of my memory, they’ll change! Fortunately I kept a card file in the 80s and computer notes from the mid 90s until now. I try to discipline myself to keep notes on what I grow, knowing that my memory is not trustworthy. Yours probably isn’t either! With today’s cell phone technology I also easily take pictures which is extremely helpful.

Boost Your Garden Note Taking by Using Electronic Tools

Appalachian Heirloom Plant Farm has a wonderful selection of beans.


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5 thoughts on “Five Lessons Learned from an Heirloom Bean”

  1. Thanks for this info. I’m learning this now! I have “fall” beans that have great looking vines but not flower/no beans.

  2. Well, hopefully your plants will hang in there until cooler temps arrive. Sometimes the only way I can know if a variety will produce in our hot Oklahoma climate is to try it. I have a planting, right now, of a Kentucky heirloom called “Hamby bean,” which is lush and beautiful, but producing nothing! Bet it’ll straighten out in about a month.
    Thanks for the comment, Irv. We really appreciate it!

  3. I planted Appalacian pole beans for the first time this year just to see if they would thrive–we live at 6800 ft in a semi-arid area.(This year–severe drought) They did well, but only after the spring left and summer arrived. Early plantings disappeared from the world and only after night-time temps were in mid-50’s did they begin to sprout It’s now early September and they are all harvested and drying. live and learn.

    1. So did you get a decent harvest in the later part of the season? My observation is that some Appalachian beans do better in hotter temps than do others.

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