A closer look at the moon-shaped bean you’ve been mispronouncing your whole life
Story By Bailey Gilliam
Lima beans, also called butter beans and sieva beans, are the seeds of the plant Phaseolus lunatus. The meaning of the latter half of the name, lunatus, is ‘half-moon, which refers to the lima bean’s shape. The lima bean has also been called a sugar bean, chad bean, Java bean, double bean, Madagascar bean, large white bean and Burma bean. They are part of the legume family and are cream or pale-green colored. Whatever you call them, they are large, creamy, delicious and nutritious, making the perfect addition to your legume routine. These legumes originated in South America and are used in various dishes. They’re available fresh during the late growing season or as fresh-frozen, canned or dried beans year-round. So there’s no excuse not to eat them – whatever you want to call them.
Wait, lima beans are butter beans?
While they’re all the same bean botanically, lima beans have different names depending on the region. They’re typically called butter beans in the South and the United Kingdom. Elsewhere they’re known as lima beans, named after Lima, Peru, the bean’s point of origin. (Yes, you read that right. You’ve been mispronouncing them this whole time.)
Lima beans have been cultivated in Peru since 6000 B.C. and were used as status symbols in ceremonies. Lima beans were both a symbol of war and eternal life and can be seen through fine art and pottery in the A.D. era. The early history of the lima bean is intertwined in the food ways of two indigenous groups: South and North Americans, specifically of Peru and the American South. The lima bean was a member of the “three sisters” of Native American cuisine and eventually became known as a prime ingredient of succotash. They even managed to make an appearance at Mount Vernon. George Washington wrote a letter to Anthony Whiting, a master farmer and estate manager for Washington who worked at Mount Vernon, which reads: “Undercover with this letter you will receive some lima beans which Mrs. Washington desires may be given to the gardener.”
Beans are packed with protein, fiber and other nutrients, making them an obvious superfood. Lima beans are an excellent source of iron. One cup of lima beans contains 1/4 of your daily recommended iron intake. They are also a glycemic index food, making them a great choice for people with diabetes. They’re also rich in soluble fiber, which helps the body absorb carbohydrates slowly and regulates blood sugar levels. They are excellent supporters of heart and digestive health, can prevent anemia and are a good source of manganese, molybdenum, copper, folate, phosphorus and thiamine (vitamin B1).
Lima beans are a warm-season crop that should be planted in the spring after all danger of frost has passed. Choose a spot with loose, well-draining soil and full sun. Plant seeds 4-6 inches apart in rows 2-3 feet apart. Seeds should pop up within 7-18 days. Make sure the plants receive at least 1 inch of water per week. There are two basic types of lima beans: bush and pole. Bush types are typically smaller and mature faster, developing on bushes that grow to be about 2 feet tall. Pole types are climbing plants; the beans are typically larger and take longer to mature. Varieties that grow in the form of bush reach maturity earlier, but they are more sensitive to diseases and pests. Bush lima beans are ready for harvest 60-80 days from sowing, while pole beans are ready for harvest in 85-90 days.
Harvest lima beans at the shelling stage or the drying stage. Lima beans are ready for shelling when the pod changes color, the beans inside plump up, but before the pod and seeds dry. If you want to harvest the beans to store as dried beans, leave the pods on the vine until they are dry and brittle, with the beans inside dry and hard. Hold the vine end when pulling off the pods to prevent damaging the vine.
There are many different varieties of lima beans. Here are four of our favorites:
Christmas: These large, burgundy-and-white beans have a potato-like texture. They are an heirloom variety and take 90 days to mature.
Jackson Wonder: These buff-colored beans have burgundy speckles. They handle heat well and take around 66 days to grow.
King of the Gardens: This popular variety has large white beans produced over a long season of around 88 days.
Henderson’s Bush: This is an old, reliable variety with small white beans. It keeps producing for weeks and grows to maturity in around 65 days.
Tips for preparing lima beans
Dried lima beans must be soaked before cooking. Before soaking, spread them on a flat surface, and remove all debris, small stones or damaged beans. Then rinse the beans in a strainer under cool running water.
- To quick-soak: Place the sorted, washed beans in a pot, and add 2-3 cups of water per cup of beans. Bring the water and beans to a boil, and keep them there for two minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, cover, and let stand for two hours. After soaking, drain the water and rinse with cool running water.
- To overnight-soak: Place the sorted, washed beans in a pot, and add 2-3 cups of water per cup of beans. Cover, and place in the refrigerator overnight (about 8 hours). After soaking, drain the water and rinse with cool running water.
Canned lima beans can be prepared by pouring them into a saucepan and heating them on medium heat for about 10 minutes. When fully heated, do not drain the water. Add seasoning to taste.
Frozen lima beans should be placed in a microwave-safe dish with 1/3 cup of water for every 3 tablespoons of lima beans. Cover and cook on high for 8 minutes.
Fresh lima beans must be shelled and cleaned before cooking. Break one tip, and “unzip” the string. Split the seam, preferably with a fingernail, and remove the beans. Rinse in a colander under cold running water. To cook, place beans, water and salt in a medium saucepan; cover. Cook over medium heat for 1 hour or until tender.
Mediterranean-style lima beans
This lima bean recipe is anything but average, with a rich, velvety tomato sauce and just a hint of mint for a little Mediterranean flare.
1/2 pound dried, large lima beans
1 quart water
1 bay leaf
1 cup vegetable broth
1/8 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup shredded carrot
2 cups diced or crushed tomatoes
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 tablespoon agave nectar
1/2 tablespoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh mint, finely chopped
 Place beans in a large bowl, cover with water by at least 3-4 inches and soak for 8-12 hours. Check on them periodically as they absorb water; you may need to cover them with more.  When the beans have finished soaking, drain and rinse them well, then place them in a large pot and cover them with a quart of water or more if needed.  Add the bay leaf and bring to a boil over high heat.  Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 20-30 minutes.  Preheat the oven to 375. Lightly rub olive oil on the inside walls of a 4-quart Dutch oven.  Place the olive oil and garlic in the Dutch oven and heat over medium heat until the garlic sizzles. Add the onion and cook for 3-4 minutes until translucent, stirring frequently. When the onion is translucent, add the shredded carrots and cook for another minute to soften. Then add the tomatoes, vegetable stock, red wine vinegar, tomato paste, agave, thyme, oregano, salt and nutmeg. Bring this mixture to a boil stirring frequently.  Reduce to low and simmer for 10 minutes.  Stir in the parsley and mint. Remove from heat and add lima beans. Stir to coat.  Place a lid on the dish and bake for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the lid and bake for an additional 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and discard the bay leaf.
Sprout Momma – Butter bean curry
1 onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, grated
1 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 teaspoon chili powder
1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 14-ounce can butter beans
1/2 cup heavy cream
Lemon juice, for garnish
 Cook onion with butter over medium heat until slightly soft, about 5 minutes.  Add garlic, spices and tomato paste. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently.  Pour in butterbeans with the liquid along with heavy cream. Stir well to combine, then simmer for 5 minutes.  Plate and add cilantro on top with a squeeze of lemon juice. Serve with toasted naan or pita bread.