The first fava flower.

Of all the types of legumes I’ve grown, favas are the most strange. They grow tall, but they don’t have tendrils to help them climb. The rely on your help to weave their fairly brittle stems through lattice to stay upright – I have no idea how they would grow in the wild. They don’t have many side shoots – they’re pretty much just long columns of stem, with a few leaves here and there. The flowers form directly on the stems, and aren’t nearly as showy as pea or bean flowers. They’re a dull white with black centers, but they do have their charms.

When the pods come, they’re gigantic. The first time I saw them, I was in France, and I thought they were some mutant strand of European beans. Truth be told, that’s pretty much what they are. While lentils and peas are native to the Middle East and cowpeas are native to Africa, most other legumes we eat are originally from the Americas. Favas are the exception, and started off in Europe. Often the first legume to mature in the garden, they are a great source of vegetable protein.

Greek philosopher Pythagoras advised against eating favas for reasons that are lost to time. But some people have a condition called favism, which is brought on by eating fresh favas.  Favas contain an enzyme that can trigger severe anemia, and even death in some cases. Luckily, I don’t have it. (It’s rare, but most common in people of Greek, Italian, North African and Chinese descent.)

Last week, I found favas in the grocery store for the first time this year, and picked them up for a quick salad. Fresh favas are a lot of work. Not only do you have to shell the beans from their pods, but each bean is covered in a tough jacket of inedible material. You have to boil or steam the favas for 3-5 minutes, then peel the jacket off each bean before you can eat them. But favas are worth the work.

Last fall, I planted a late crop of favas. They flowered, but never set pods, because I planted them much too late. This year, understanding that favas are a spring crop, they were among the first seeds that went into the ground in March. I’m just now starting to see the first flowers, which means I will pinch out the growing tips of each plant so sideshoots will be encouraged to form. Not much longer until we get fresh, homegrown favas.

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