Janet and the Beanstalk
Some things start innocent enough—and that is how this story begins.
Last year, the horticultural staff from Monticello came up from Virginia for a tour of the Smithsonian Gardens and brought me a goody bag of seeds they thought I might find interesting. Somehow they knew I have “a thing” for plant oddities. The goodies included things like Medicago or ‘Snail Clover,’ which has these BEAUTIFUL spiral seeds which look like beads, and Mimosa pudica – a sensitive plant that folds up when you touch it, and something mysterious called ‘Guinea Bean’ or ‘Snake Gourd’.
I had never heard of Guinea Bean so I looked it up and learned that it is actually a gourd, native to Mediterranean areas. In Italy it is known as “Cucuzza” which translates to something like ‘super long squash’. The descriptions all say it is edible and looks like a zucchini, gets 15” to 3’ long and is treated much like a zucchini. Harvest it small and it tastes like green beans, harvest it later and has more solid flesh. Unlike a zucchini, it does form a hard outer shell when left on its own.
Armed with that information, I was willing to try it, especially because part of the Mary Livingston Ripley garden is behind the construction fencing for the Arts and Industries Building restoration project so I could grow it on the fence, out of public view.
I really did not think much of these little squash-like plants when I put them out in early spring. I honestly forgot about them until the weather got warmer and the plants started putting on growth, which required me tying them to the lattice fencing. I thought they would get to the top of the 6’ fence and stop there. Boy, was I ever wrong!
I first noticed sometime in July that a couple of the plants had reached out and grabbed onto the protective netting beyond the fence that was surrounding the scaffolding on Arts and Industries Building. I thought it was cute, and would add ammunition to my perpetual prank battle with the construction crews. It took just a few days until I started getting ’threats‘ of a bill coming from the scaffolding company for use of “their” trellis. And the plant kept growing. Soon I started getting all kinds of inquiries from the construction guys asking what it was. They could actually measure the growth of the vine from morning until the end of their shift! It was literally growing 1-3 feet a DAY! Everyone wanted to know what it was and how big it would get. I relayed what I had gleaned from my quick search, but noticed that no one was saying how big the plants grew . . . hmm . . . wonder why?
As the summer progressed the guys continued to report in their findings, including a baseball bat-sized gourd hidden on their side of the fence. Wow – it was a honker – much larger than the 3’ maximum . . . how much bigger could it get? So of course, we left it to grow.
By August the plants had almost reached 30 feet tall, and I saw that the scaffolding crews were removing the netting from the scaffolding. Bummer! The plant would not have the chance to make it to the top of the building. But I was delighted that, without even consulting me, they removed all the netting except the one with the gourds! They wanted the plants to make it to the top also!
So . . . did the ‘Snake Gourd’ make it? Yes! Our Jack-and-the-beanstalk plant climbed to 50 feet to reach the top of the scaffolding.
Only three gourds actually made it—the big honker we found early in the season matured to a little over 5 feet long, with a solid outer shell, plus a skinny wobbly 5’ long one plus a soft tender 3’ gourd. All of which I dragged home on the Metro which caused much bewilderment to all who saw me and information and education for those who were curious enough to inquire.
And this all started with the sharing of some innocent looking seeds. Thanks for the adventure to my friends at Monticello! Remember, January is National Mail Order Gardening Month. What are you ordering to plant in your garden?
-Janet Draper, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist