Step up to the Plate: A Bean that Makes the Recipe

Steffen Mirsky, horticultural technician, and Philip Kauth, assistant curator, make up the Seed Savers Exchange Evaluation Team.  The Eval Team is the division of the Preservation Department that keeps detailed records of more characteristics than most people know an individual variety can have. Their work helps us differentiate between the varieties in our collection and describe them clearly in the Yearbook. 

Step up to the Plate is a blog series in which the evaluation professionals profile a variety that stands out to their distinguished senses each month. They send their shouts and appreciation to Sara Straate, our in-house seed historian, who helped them research the variety highlighted in this post.

'Dolloff' Dry Beans

April 2015: Bean 4076 'Dolloff'

Here’s a bean that’s so tasty and so unusual that it has not only inspired many home cooks but also some rather far-fetched stories of its own origins.  

‘Dolloff’ belongs to a class of beans called horticultural or shelling beans.  According to 19th-century American horticulturalist Fearing Burr, horticultural beans were introduced to the United States from England around 1825. These beans are eaten in the fresh green shelling stage (but ‘Dolloff’ makes good dry beans, too), and are generally characterized by mature pods that are yellow with vivid red stripes.  The large, swollen seeds typically have a light base color with dark red mottling and streaking.  Shelling beans have declined in popularity in the US, possibly because of the extra effort required to prepare them.  They are, however, quite delicious and are worthy of more attention.  We evaluated ‘Dolloff’ in 2014 and found the variety to be outstanding with a sweet and savory flavor and dense, meaty flesh.  

A bean saved is a bean earned

‘Dolloff’ bean was donated to Seed Savers Exchange by Leigh Hurley, who first listed this variety in the SSE Yearbook in 1986.  Leigh acquired the variety from Hattie Gray of nearby West Burke, Vermont, who had grown the variety for about 60 years, since the 1920s.  Hattie’s mother acquired the bean from Roy Dolloff, the variety’s namesake, in Burke Hollow, Vermont, sometime in the 1920s.  According to Leigh, Hattie remembered walking with her mother to Burke Hollow to get the seed when she was a girl, a distance of a couple of miles just for the love of beans.  Hattie called them ‘Cranberry pole’ beans, but Leigh explains that this was a term widely used in the region for any bean with horticultural type markings.

According to Leigh, Hattie used the beans dry to make baked beans, which she served at church suppers.  Hattie gave the baked beans recipe out freely, but people were usually disappointed because they inevitably tried it with some other bean.  The recipe was nothing special in itself – the secret was in Hattie’s beans.  Leigh uses the variety as a dry bean for chili or baked beans and also in the green shell stage, sautéed and simmered with other fresh vegetables. 


'Dolloff' Shelling beans

Beans from another planet

‘Dolloff’ is an exceptional bean not only for its flavor but also its curious shape – wide and flat, much like a lima bean.  This has led Leigh to hypothesize in her illuminating blog The Extreme Gardener that this bean is a descendant of a horticultural bean popular in the northeast US in the early 1900s called ‘Horticultural Lima’.  According to Beans of New York, this bean “showed certain characteristic that led to the belief that the variety came from an accidental, or field cross, between Dreer Improved Pole Lima and Horticultural Pole…which stood near each other on the place of J.H. Hodges, Pepton, Addison Co., Vt.  In 1885, Mr. Hodges found a pod of six beans, from which Horticultural Lima resulted.” ‘Horticultural Lima’ was first introduced in the John Lewis Childs seed catalog in 1891 and two years later in D.M. Ferry’s catalog in 1893.  Ferry’s 1893 catalog hails it as a “GRAND NEW ACQUISITION, which is a true cross between Dreer’s Lima (pole) and the Dwarf Horticultural.”

Although a cross between a common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) and a lima bean (Phaseolus lunatus) is impossible, given this bean’s shape it is easy to imagine that it was a result of such a cross.  Regardless of its true origin, this bean is truly special and deserves a place in gardens and on the kitchen table.  If you have never grown or tried a horticultural bean, here is a variety that will inspire you to grow them year after year. 

As of 2014, this variety has been listed in the Yearbook by almost 20 different listed members from 1986 to the present day. 

An advertisement for 'Dolloff' bean in Ferry's 1893 Catalog


SSE’s 2014 Yearbook description for 'Dolloff':  Pole/dry bean. Seeds are reddish tan with darker brown mottling. A very good tasting shelling and dry bean that is savory and sweet with a dense flesh. Skin is relatively thick.  Dry beans become hard seeded. Plants were not vigorous climbers and were moderately productive when grown in 2014 at Heritage Farm. Leaves dark green and stems green with red pigmentation at the nodes. Flowers white. Immature pods green, with red dashes appearing later in fully expanded stage.  Mature pods yellow with red dashes. Pods are straight and have an upward curving beak that is long. Suture string present, but weak. Not recommended as a snap bean.  Mature pods 4-6" long and about 0.5" wide. Dry pods are shattering. 4-6 seeds per pod. Mid-season maturity to dry pod stage when grown in 2014 at Heritage Farm.

Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization located in Decorah, Iowa, with a mission to conserve and promote America's culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.