Botanical description: Horse Bean is an annual plant which generally reaches a height of from two to three feet. It grows strictly upright and is neither winding like beans nor climbing like peas and vetches. The leaves are composed of from one to three pairs of large broad leaflets. They have no tendrils. The flowers are borne in clusters, two to five together. They are large and showy, white with two large deep purple or black spots. The pods, which are sometimes as much as five inches long, enclose five or six large seeds separated from each other by a soft, spongy tissue.
History: Horse Bean is an old agricultural plant, the origin of which is not known. It is said to be a native of Persia but the evidence is not conclusive. It was grown in central Europe thousands of years before the Christian era, and large quantities of seed have been found in excavations at Troy. It is still of some importance in southern and central Europe, England and Egypt, but is being gradually replaced by other legumes.
Varieties: There are a number of varieties, chiefly distinguished from one another by the size of the seeds.
Agricultural value: Horse Bean was grown by the old Greeks and Romans and the seeds were used to make bread, cakes and porridge. In those parts of Europe where its cultivation is of some importance it is still used for human food as well as for fodder. In Canada it is principally valuable as a cover crop in young orchards, where, when sown in summer, it uses up the soil moisture and thus checks the late growth of fruit-tree wood and forces the spring growth to ripen before serious danger from frost. Being a nitrogen gatherer it also enriches the soil, and although it is killed by autumn frosts the stalks help to retain the snow.
Seed: In some varieties the seeds arc almost three-quarters of an inch long and half an inch broad, flat with a deep scar at one end. They are generally reddish-brown.