In the middle 70's I was living in Capron, Illinois in a rural area on 6 acres. My bean collecting consisted entirely of commercial varieties found in seed catalogs. I had seed catalogs from all over the country, and even had Thompson And Morgan from the U.K, and Le Jardin Du Gourmet who carried a lot of bean varieties from France. I grew most of the current popular bush snap beans, and the usual assortment of stewing varieties like kidney beans, pintos, and navy beans. In 1977 in the winter months I was looking forward to the up and coming growing season ordering a few new bean varieties and drawing up my diagram of where every bean variety would be carefully placed in the bean garden. I had grown Comtesse de Chambord since 1975 and of course this bean figured into my planting plans again. Comtesse de Chambord is an old 19th century French heirloom variety which was probably hardly known by anyone then, and possibly by even less gardeners today.
I didn't have any experience with crosses in beans back then, but knew that although they occured rarely. They could happen on ocassion. I grew my rows 30 inches apart, and had 3 or 4 varieties to a 60 foot long row. Bumblebee activity was very plentiful especially living among farms. Bumblebees are excellent pollinators. Even better than the orange and black honeybee. I had no idea at the time those black, and yellow critters would eventually give me so many unexpected surprises. It takes two years for a bean cross to become evident, as the trait for seedcoat color is transmitted maternally. I don't know what I had grown next to the white seeded snap bean in previous seasons. (I wished that I had saved some of my old bean planting diagrams) ,but likely it was another green snap bean since my early collecting consisted mainly of those types. Perhaps the brown, and tan mottled seeded Tendergreen, or possibly Tendercrop. Varieties that had been grown in gardens for decades upon decades.
Planting came in late may, and the smell of the rural countryside filled the summer air. Cultivating out the weeds progressed in June, and July. In August beginning around the third week of the month would be about the start of my seed harvesting. I would take a brown paper grocery sack, and pick dry pods from one variety at a time. Then return to my garage to deposit the dry pods in the proper box marked for the kind I had just harvested. Then return to my little fields for another variety. Ocassionally as I picked dry pods I would crack one open a little to get a peak at the new seed of the season, and as I was cracking open one Comtesse de Chambord pod one day to my surprise, not white seeds, but a beautiful bluish striped seed mottled with a very light buff that was almost white when the seed was new. A color I had never seen on a bean seed before, and a bean with a seed coat color I had not planted that spring. I knew right then I had a cross. As I looked at the seed. I said to myself. "The colors remind me of the feathers on a Blue Jay bird". So that is how the bean came to have the name Blue Jay.
I had wondered all through that following winter what planting that fantastic looking new seed would bring the next summer of 1978. This was the year I became a member of Wanigan Associates bean growers network headed up by John Withee. A long time bean grower, and collector from Lynnfield Massachusetts. My membership in the Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), based in Princeton, Missouri would follow the same year in the autumn.
Some bean crosses are unstable. Throwing off different sorts of combinations, and sometimes reverting back to one or both the original varieties from which it came. The new bean grew with the same pods and seeds with bluish markings, and by the time the 1979 growing season had passed. My Blue Jay, sweet child of the sun, was giving a consistant crop of the same pods, and seeds each season. In my opinion this cross had passed the test, and was ready to be offered to other members of the Seed Savers Exchange. I had offered Blue Jay in the SSE Winter Yearbooks For seven years. From 1980 to 1986. I can still look at my old copy of the Seed Savers Exchange winter yearbook for 1985,and see where I had given the information that the bean Blue Jay was an outcross from Comtesse de Chambord, and that it had grown true in my growing trials for the last three seasons. I had also published in 1980 a little book of bean seed descriptions called "Hill Of Beans" that contains a very short entry about Blue Jay. A copy of "Hill Of Beans" can be seen at the SSE's Heritage Farm Library in Decorah, Iowa, or by clicking the link above on this page.
By the late 80's my bean garden had become shaded out by two towering maple trees that I didn't have the heart to destroy. So my bean growing gardens came to an end after the 1987 season, not knowing where to take my bean growing efforts next. Within about five years all my seed stocks that I had not traded, or offered away to SSE members I felt would probably no longer grow. So after the 1989 SSE yearbook season I stopped offering any seeds. After this point I often thought about Seed Savers Exchange and hoped the organization was doing well. I also thought about my Blue Jay, and hoped that my child of the sun would always be in someones loving hands, because at this point it's life was certainly out of mine.
And A New Beginning.............................
Nearly a decade and three quarters passed, and I retired from my day job in 2008. I Moved to Arizona for a year, and a half. Then returned to Woodstock, Illinois in 2009.
In May of 2011 I decided it would be fun to have a little vegetable garden again. The thought of growing a small number of bean varieties, and starting a bean collection again just struck me the right way. Getting bean varieties would be easier this time because now we've got the internet. The internet wasn't around in my first incarnation as a bean grower, and collector. So I got online, and ordered seeds from various sources, which included some heritage seed companies in Canada.
In June of 2011 I was noticing Blue Jay being sold online on some Canadian seed company websites. I thought to myself how interesting it was that someone must have developed a new bean variety, and thought of giving it the same name as I had given my newly found outcross back in 1977. Then as I was looking at one particular Canadian seed company website, Two Wings Farm. I had noticed a listing for a bean called Comtesse de Chambord. I said to myself "Fantastic! This nearly unheard of snap bean is still around". So as I read the description it stated how it was one of the parents of the Blue Jay bean, and right underneath that listing was the description of a bean, and photo of seed offered for sale, of a variety called Blue Jay. After seeing the description of Comtesse de Chambord, and seeing the listing and photo of seed for Blue Jay right underneath. I instantly knew one of the places where my sweet child of the sun had gone to live.
Since I had read excellent revues about Blue Jay on all the Canadian websites I had visited that were offering the bean. I thought perhaps those gardeners of the north, who were tending the bean so well, would like to know the very beginning origin of the bean. So I emailed Two Wings Farm, and told them about my discovery of the Blue Jay seed growing amongst plants of Comteese de Chambord in 1977, and how I had offered the seed to members of The Seed Savers Exchange, having been a member back in the 1980s. I also emailed them a scan of my 1985 SSE winter yearbook listing. Which briefly described and documented my discovery of Blue Jay growing amongst the Comtesse de Chambord variety, and a photo of some old seed stock I still have of Blue Jay. A day later when I checked my emails. I got a message from Marti Wood of Two Wings Farm, and she said. "We have forwarded your emails to Shirley Bellows of Seeds Of Diversity Canada." "She was very excited to read your information, and will probably be contacting you." Yes she did indeed contact me, and for two days we had some nice email conversations about Blue Jay.
At this point in time during June 2011. I had wondered if Shirley Bellows or anyone else in Canada who had anything to do with bringing Blue Jay to commerical status there, wondered, or was curious about the history of Blue Jay, or where the variety had come from. I did find my answer to that question. The next two articles I had received by email. Both written by Shirley Bellows of Seeds Of Diversity Canada. I have typed them up word for word as they had appeared in "Seeds" a Seeds Of Diversity Canada publication. In the articles you will read about the role of Dave Ackerman from Upper Canada Seeds (who had been a member of Seed Savers Exchange as far back as 1982), Bob Wildfong Executive director of Seeds Of Diversity Canada, Andrea Berry owner of Hope Seeds & Perrenials in New Brunswick, Joseph Steyr from the Everdale Enviornmental Learning Center, and the many volunteers, in the Canadian side of Blue Jays amazing journey.
The Blue Jay Bean: A Success Story.............................
"Bob" I said to Seeds Of Diversity Canada's executive director. "I was wondering if there's a good story to tell our membership about successfully re-introducing a vegetable cultivar in danger of extinction" It didn't take him long to come up with the Blue Jay bean, and the names of the people who could tell the story. Here it is in three parts.
I have grown many varieties of beans over the years, but the Blue Jay bean is the only one that has tempted both humans and animals to thievery. In 2002, I placed an exhibit in my local Ontario fair that called for a full jar of dried bean seeds. Before I could remove my prize-winning entry from the table at the fair's end, the entire jar of seeds was stolen. Blue Jay seeds are a beautiful dark purple splashed with pink, and obviously someone could not resist the temptation to provide them with a new home.
In 2009, I grew them in my British Columbia garden along with five other bean varieties. It was a perfect summer for growing beans, but when I went to pick some for the table, I discovered that the local woodrats had chosen only the Blue Jay snap beans for their dinner. All the other bean varieties were untouched, but nearly every single pod of Blue Jay was eaten right from the plants at their peak of perfection. Disappointed does not begin to describe my feelings that day!
So with those testimonies to the attractiveness and delectability of these beans, let me tell you how I came to add them to my collection.
In the late 1990's, I purchased a package of Blue Jay beans from Dave Ackerman's Upper Canada Seeds. The beans were early to bloom with attractive lavender/blue coloured flowers, and they matured their purple-splashed green pods in about 65 days. They were both sweet and tender and quickly became our favourite snap bean. I was eager to research their history , so I contacted Dave to ask if he knew anything about them. He had acquired them from a Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) member who never offered them again.
In a library book, I found them listed in the SSE 1999 Garden Seed Inventory, with this information: "Blue Jay 68 days an out-cross of Comtesse de Chambord, purple seed has black streaks and white flecks, just like the bird, purple flowers, oval pods contain 5-6 seeds, uniform and stable. Source History: in 1998. Source: Fo7. Fox Hollow Seed Company, Pennsylvania."
The Comtesse de Chambord bean was a small, shiny white French heirloom described as a 'rice bean' although supposedly not quite that tiny. The small size contributed to this variety's rarity, as it was considered too small to be grown economically by farmers. The variety is however reputed to be extremely flavourful. I have not yet been able to add this bean to my collection, but it would be intriguing to compare it's flavour to the Blue Jay bean.
It is interesting that the Blue Jay bean's seed colour is described differently by different growers. Perhaps different fertilizers and soils are responsible for subtle variations. Some seeds are certainly less splashed than others, but these should be preserved to maintain the greatest genetic diversity. I initially wondered why it was called 'Blue Jay' but when the lovely blue/lavender flowers appeared, the reason became obvious.
Gardeners are in agreement that this is a beautiful bean with exceptional flavour and worthy of being more widely grown. It has grown extremely well for me in both Ontario and British Columbia, so I am confident that it would do well in many areas of Canada.
Since I became a fan of this variety, I have passed the seeds on to a few people. In 2005, I gave it to Bob Wildfong who began offering it in 2006 in the Seeds Of Diversity Canada Member Seed Directory. Bob has, in turn, passed it on to Andrea Berry of Hope Seeds, who now offers it in her catalogue. I gave seeds to Marti Wood Of Two Wings Farm on Vancouver Island, and it is now also offered in this seed catalogue. It is a tribute to Seeds Of Diversity members that this outstanding bean variety now has a more secure future.
In 2005, Shirley Bellows sent me a small packet of bean seeds. I already had many...far too many varieties of beans, so I didn't expect to be able to find room for them in the garden, but the name on the packet intriqued me. I never heard of Blue Jay beans, so I opened the little envelope and immediatley knew that I would grow them that summer. What a beautiful seed!
I grew about 20 kinds of beans that year, as well as 80 or so other kinds of plants, on a quarter of an acre of good land given to Seeds Of Diversity by the Everdale Enviornmental Learning Centere. The beans were all grown in short rows, each variety separated by at least 20 feet to prevent cross-pollination by insects, so the saved seeds would remain true to their types. Most beans with striped seeds also have striped pods, so I wasn't too surprised to see that Blue Jays were delightfully coloured with long purple stripes, and the few that I tasted were delicious.
That first short row of about 20 plants yielded about a pound of seeds, enough to share with Seeds Of Diversity Canada members through the Seed Directory. I gladly offered them and was delighted to see a few members re-offer them in later years. That's why seed savers share seeds. It's why Shirley first sent those seeds to me. It was exciting to discover a wonderful variety that hardly anyone knew about!
Moreover, there were still only a few people producing those beans, and really only a few handfuls of the seeds in existence. To think that a treasure like the Blue Jay bean had come so close to vanishing forever. We were not going to let it slip away. The more people who multiplied and offered those seeds to other gardeners, the more likely that the Blue Jay would be rescued. perpetuated, and enjoyed by gardeners everywhere.
By 2008, we had a good stock of seeds, thanks to the work of interns and volunteers at Everdale. We had about five pounds of Blue Jay bean seeds, and I began to wonder if someone should attempt growing them on a larger scale. That year, Seeds Of Diversity Canada and Everdale had the good fortune to share the benefit of a Job Creation Partnership placement, which allowed Joseph Steyr to assist us with several programs. Joseph wanted to learn more about seed production, so he set about growing several varieties of beans and tomatoes in commercial quantities. He knew that "ordinary" varieties were easily available from global wholesale companies, so he wanted to grow varieties that were not well known, but had real commercial potential. The Blue Jay bean seemed to be a good fit.
That year, Joseph sold a large box of Blue Jay bean seeds to Andrea Berry of Hope Seeds, and I've heard that her customers have enjoyed growing them. This variety is not widely known yet by any means, but it's in enough people's hands that I'm not worried about it vanishing anymore. So thanks to Shirley, Joseph a whole bunch of volunteers, and a growing number of our seed saver members, we've rescued it!
More than that, the blue Jay bean is an example of the successes that make Seeds Of Diversity Canada important. This beautiful and delicious variety has made a journey from total obscurity and near extinction, to commercial availability, and who helped it along the way! Amateur gardeners who knew a good thing when they saw it and tasted it. For Thousands of years it's been home gardeners who've kept most of the heritage varieties growing from year to year, and that really hasn't changed much.
People often ask me which varieties are most in need of saving. The problem is that there are thousands tied for first place, all on the verge of extinction, often just grown by one person. Blue Jay was one of the lucky varieties.
How can you save a heritage variety? Try one you haven't heard of before. If it's good save some seeds, and pass them on. Support a small heitage seed company. That's the kind of action that will rescue the next hidden gem. Thanks and keep up the good work, everybody.
As owner of a small seed company, I'm often approached by folks with "a few beans" or" a couple of tomato seeds" that hold a special place in their hearts and history. This often means, however, that we spend many seasons restoring the variety to learn more about its growing culture, and producing enough volume to supply our customers. It takes time and resources to do this, as well as producing quality seed on a larger scale.
When Joseph Steyer, intern with Seeds Of Diversity Canada in 2008 through Everdale Enviormental Learning Centere contacted me with prospects of bulk organic heritage seeds for sale, I was immediately intrigued. Knowing that Joseph worked under the tutelage of Bob Wildfong, this was immediate assurance that the quality of seed would be top notch, respected isolation distances, tested germination, good grading. The bonus was getting enough quantity to supply our catalogue right from the beginning!
The Blue Jay bean had been under Bob's care and stewardship for many seasons. His work restoring the variety and acclimatizing it to organic growing conditions in Eastern Canada is a rare as the seed itself. The bean had characteristics that our customers would like, a snap bean, early production, and a great story. Hope Seeds listed the Blue Jay bean in our 2009 catalogue, and have had many good comments from those who grew it in their gardens. It is a variety that we will continue to work with in Atlantic Canada, keeping its story growing.
Blue Jay Bean vs The Comtesse de Chambord Bean And the winner is........................By Shirley Bellows
As a long time grower and champion of the Blue Jay snap bean, I greeted the unexpected arrival of it's French ancestor, the Comtesse de Chambord, with both excitement and skepticism. The rare and venerable new-comer to my garden, which dates back to early 19th century France, arrived courtesy of Seeds Of Diversity Canada member Annette Barley.
I began to ponder how Blue Jay's great, great, great grand-bean, a bean that quite possibly graced the dinning table of Napoleon himself, would fare in a pod to pod competition? I resolved to compare the two varieties and the epic battle began in the spring of 2010.
It was a cold and dreary spring on Vancouver Island as the combatants took to the field of battle. Gardeners across the island had to resort to starting their beans in containers. The soil would not warm until late June. Consequently I decided the entire "grow-off" would be waged in containers.
You may recall from the article, The Blue Jay Bean: A Sucess Story, in our Winter 2010 issue, Vol. 23, No. 1, that my heritage beans had been extremely popular with the local rodents. This spring two varieties of heritage broad beans were completely eaten by Western Gray Squirrels and Woodrats. This grow-off would require careful monitoring and protection.
Protecting the snap beans became a top priority. Using three-foot long planters, both varieties were pre-sprouted and planted on June 16th in bagged soil with legume inoculant added. The planters were moved outside during warmer days and back into my greenhouse/garden shed on cooler ones and overnight.
The Blue Jay plants went on the offensive immediately, blooming 10-14 days earlier than the Comtesse de Chambord. Blue Jay's pretty lavender/blue blossoms developed into purple-striped green pods measuring between 12.7-15.2 cm (5-6inches) long and 1.3 cm (1/2 inch) wide that were mature for the table by August 15th. The Comtesse de Chambord plants had white blossoms that faded to creamy yellow and started to produce small green pods by August 15th. The mature pods were consistently 10.2 cm (4 inches) long and 0.8 cm (1/3 inch) wide.
Both varieties had very vigorous growth but the Comtesse de Chambord sported vining tendrils at the top of each plant. Each matured around 61 cm (two feet) tall. It soon became apparent that the Comtesse would produce pods over a longer time period and, as of this writing (September 15th), blossoming has just finished and small green pods are still forming. The Blue Jay bean, on the other hand, stopped producing a few weeks earlier. The Comtesse was off to a good start, the weather was heating up nicely and so was the competition.
By snap bean standards these two varieties are exceptionally sweet and tender but the Blue Jay beans turned out to be slightly more so. It seemed to me that in both raw and cooked taste tests the Comtesse, while tender could not quite match the Blue Jay for sweetness.
As the competition drew to a close two expert adjudicators added their own opinions:
Annette Barley had this comment: "Yes I have tried both Comtesse de Chambords and Blue Jays. Both are winners in my book and aren't the Blue Jay flowers a pretty colour?"
Marti Wood of Two Wings Farm commented: "I wouldn't see much similarity in the two beans and quite frankly, I thought the Comtesse de Chambord beans were a bit tough and nowhere near as tasty as Blue Jay. I didn't have any disease problems, and they were strong growers when established, and didn't mind some weeds being present. After a bit of a shaky start, the Comtesse beans were very prolific. In the package that I got were about 30 seeds and of those 15 germinated but I was able to harvest 2 1/2 cups of seeds, so that's a pretty amazing return."
This was not by any means a total defeat for the Comtesse de Chambord. At the end of August, twelve pods of the Comtesse were entered in our local Cobble Hill Fair where they were awarded second prize in a class with seven entries.
Overall it seems that the two bean varieties were more different than similar. However, the sweetness in flavour is a common characteristic as well as the vigour and seed productivity.
Regardless, both varieties deserve to be more widely grown. Hopefully the Comtesse de Chambord bean will join the Blue Jay bean in modern seed catalogues.
Bravo Blue Jay! Vive La Comtesse!