Native to the cooler, high-altitude regions of Central America, runner beans have been known as a food crop for well over 2,000 years. They were brought to the British Isles in the seventeenth century by John Tradescant (gardener to King Charles I) and were grown as a decorative plant before being used as a food in Britain.
Botanists call runner beans Phaseolus coccineus. The species name refers to the vibrant colour of the blossoms – red, like cochineal – although in some varieties the blossoms are white. Unlike regular kidney beans, runner beans are perennial, though in the UK we grow them as annuals because of the climate. In the highlands of southern Mexico and Central America, from where the beans originated, the seeds come in many different colours including white, pink, purple, and black. The runner bean differs from the common bean in several respects: the cotyledons stay in the ground during germination, and the plant is a perennial vine with tuberous roots (though it is usually treated as an annual here in the UK). The starchy yet nutritious roots can also be used as food.
Today runner beans are a very popular food in the UK, Italy and Mexico, and are grown and eaten in each of the five continents. They are an excellent source of vitamin C, folic acid and fibre.
There are many different ways to use runner beans – they are great with loads of garlic and wild mushrooms or just as part of a mixed salad. In Mexico, you find them served with a chilli sauce or in a soup, but in southern Europe, you might see them drowned in good fruity olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice before dusting with sea salt.
D.Southall and Sons grows runner beans for Reynolds. The farm is a fourth generation family owned business growing vegetables on around 750 acres, primarily for UK supermarkets. The partners are Donald Southall and his twin sons Paul and Michael.
The family began farming in 1907 when Matthew Southall originally bought Norchard Farm in Tenby, Wales. Don took over the farm in 1947, at the age of 21, after graduating from Harper Adams. Paul and Mike joined the business in 1980 as graduates from Newcastle.
D.Southall and Sons specialise in growing and packing a range of top quality vegetables over a long season and are fully accredited members of the Red Tractor Assured Produce scheme as well as winners of the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group Award for Worcestershire in 2008.