Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere

Scarlet Runner Beans

Phaseolus coccineus

By Jeremy Trombley

Origins and Description

Runner beans, the best known of which are the scarlet runners, are native to Mexico and Central America. There they have been used for centuries in both their wild and domesticated forms. The name refers to the fact that they are climbing plants and their brightly colored flowers. Runners are unusual among bean species because they are perennial in places where the ground doesn't freeze and they climb in a clockwise direction.

Distribution and Use

Runners were used in many parts of the Americas before the arrival of Europeans. Native Americans consumed almost every part of the plant including the starchy root. It was first brought to Europe as an ornamental plant, but eventually found a place as a food resource as well. The beans can be eaten raw when young, but they are often sold in their mature form. In this latter case, they are often very tough and must be sliced before use – a process referred to as “frenching,” though only the young, tender pods are eaten in France. The seeds may also be dried and saved for later.

Varieties of runner beans are still grown ornamentally in many parts of Europe and the U.S. Their vibrant flowers, which come in a variety of colors make them an ideal ornamental food source. In fact, the flowers themselves are often eaten in salads.


Albala, Ken. Beans: A History. New York: Berg Publishers, 2007.

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food 2nd Ed. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, USA, 2006.