The hyacinth bean is also known as the Indian bean, Egyptian bean or lablab. It is a species of bean that is widespread as a food crop throughout the tropics especially in Africa, India and Indonesia. It is a traditional food plant in parts of Africa but is little-known outside the continent although it has the potential to improve nutrition, boost food security, foster rural development and support sustainable land use in many parts of the world.
It grows as a vine and produces purple flowers and striking purple-green coloured pods. It grows profusely and produces edible leaves, flowers, pods, seeds and roots although one must be careful when eating the dry beans as these contain a poison which can be removed by prolonged boiling.
It is not normally grown in Malta but I recently found several plants of this species growing profusely close to a wall in an abandoned field at Mġarr. I first found it last summer when the plants were in full flower. Last week they had hundreds of bean pods. The plants are very large even though it seemed that nobody had been taking any care of them for a very long time.
Being a native of Africa the hyacinth bean tolerates drought and can grow in places where the rainfall is less that 500 mm and it is able to extract water from at least 2 metres depth although it does loose its leaves during prolonged dry periods.
In many parts of the tropics it is grown as forage and as an ornamental plant. It is also said to have medicinal properties.
It seems that this bean grows easily in the Maltese climate and will be able to grow even if the climate changes and becomes drier as it is drought tolerant and does not require large quantities of water. It would make sense for local farmers to grow it instead of other plants that require large quantities of water.
At current extraction rates in a few years time Maltese ground water will not be fit for agriculture or drinking and the amount of water being pumped up must be reduced drastically to make it sustainable.
Introducing new crops which require less water is one way of conserving Malta’s limited ground water. One should not expect local farmers to experiment and try new crops on their own initiative. It should be the Department of Agriculture that carries out more research in this direction and encourage local farmers to start producing crops better adapted to Malta’s changing climate.
This article was published in The Times on 13.01.2010