Vicia Faba­ is the scientific name for fava beans, or broad beans. The plant’s Latin name connotes something folkloric and fairytale-like. If Jack’s beanstalk had a genus and species, I imagine it would be called Vicia Faba. Alas, the stalk of the fava bean is nothing like the ropy, tendril-covered stalk of a climbing bean. The main stem of the fava can grow to almost six feet tall with several side stems. The leaves are pinnate (having leaflets arranged on either side of the stem) and are grey-green in color. The flower petals are white with black centers. The seedpods are dark green and tough-skinned. At maturity the pods reach a length of two to three inches and can contain as little as two or three seeds or as many as eight.

At this time of year, many plots in the Santa Monica Community Gardens display waist high swaths of the bean. Favas are a winter crop for Southern California and, if planted in late autumn or early winter, are ready to be harvested by late April or early May. They are also an excellent cover crop, as are other beans, for fixing nitrogen into the soil. Many gardeners carefully plan what will be planted where the favas once grew (tomatoes next!).

Fava beans were not ‘on my radar’ until I had them in the Italian restaurant where I worked. They arrived from the produce supplier as bright green beans-flash frozen in the southern hemisphere where it was springtime. The first time I bought them fresh was from the Santa Monica Farmers’ market. I put two handfuls in a bag and was on my way. I washed and boiled the pods and, once cooled, began to shell the beans. When I saw the beans were brown, I realized there was another layer still to go. Peeling off the dark shell exposed the spring grass green color of the beans. I ended up with less than a cup of favas. Lesson learned.

The first time I planted fava beans in my plot in the Main Street Garden, I planted only a couple— literally two. They sprouted, grew a few inches and were sucked dry by aphids before they could flower. Another lesson learned. This year I planted as many as I could fit into the back corner of my garden. Favas prefer warm, fertile, well-drained soils and direct sunlight. They are susceptible to aphid infestations as well as fungal and bacterial diseases. An aphid infestation is likely to kill the plants or stunt growth. To prevent this, the plants should be carefully monitored and any aphids removed by hand or by a gentle shower of water. Pesticides should never be used, including natural pest repellents, since bees are the favas’ primary pollinators. Even a natural repellent, such as Neem oil, could harm bees and other beneficial insects as well.

Broad beans have been cultivated in the Middle East for thousands of years, as early as the Neolithic Age and developed as a crop in Western Europe (most likely in the area that is now Northern Italy) in the Bronze Age. Use and cultivation by the ancients was steeped in superstition and ritual. The Ancient Romans eroticized the plant because the individual beans, still in their inner shell, resemble a vulva. The beans are still eaten during May Day celebrations in Italy and also in celebrating the feast of St. Joseph, the patron saint of Sicily.

In ancient Greece, Pythagoras forbade his followers to eat the beans. There are many theories (no pun intended) as to why he had such an aversion to favas, but it is likely that he was allergic to the bean. Some people of Mediterranean origin lack the G6PD enzyme (glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase) necessary for breaking down the peptide glutathione, which is present in the bean. Lacking the G6PD enzyme is hereditary and can lead to hemolytic anemia. The condition of being ‘allergic’ to fava beans is commonly known as favism. Symptoms include nausea, fatigue, fever and jaundice. Care should be taken if you’ve never had fava beans before, or if you know that a parent or relative is allergic to them. Otherwise, they are incredibly nutritious, providing high amounts of dietary fiber, phytonutrients, vitamin B-6, iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium. The young leaves are also edible and nutritious.

Favas pair incredibly well with artichokes, also a springtime crop. I like them in salads or pureed into a soup. An Internet search for fava beans will turn up a plethora of recipes some claiming to be as old as Rome itself.