What Are They?

winged bean costa rica

Psophocarpus tetragonolobus – Winged Bean

Winged beans (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus) are another amazing, nutritious and easy to grow plant. Unfortunately, this underutilized species is unknown in most parts of the world but has the potential to become a multi-use food crop.  The Winged Bean is native to New Guinea and grows abundantly in hot, humid countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia to India, Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka.

The winged beans grow in pods on a climbing vine that can reach up to 4 meters.  Sometimes winged bean plants are called “supermarket on a stalk” for their many culinary uses.  When picked, the bean pods make a succulent green vegetable that can be eaten raw, boiled, fried or pickled.  However, the pods are just one of the six different foods supplied by the winged bean plant. It’s leaves are edible and can be used in salads or steamed like spinach.  Raw they’re around 7% protein and high in vitamin C and A.   The roots are also commonly eaten and have higher protein content than both potatoes and yuca.  The most nutritionally significant part of the plant are the beans.  They rival soybeans and have similar proportions of protein, amino acids, vitamins and minerals.  When cooked, the beans hit around 30% protein with high amounts calcium and iron.  The shoots and flowers can also be eaten and are commonly fried up like mushrooms or used for garnish.

winged bean

Dried Winged Bean Closeup

The NY Times wrote an article in 1982 touting winged beans as a “Potent Weapon Against Malnutrition”.  Few crops have risen so quickly from total obscurity to the winged bean’s current level of prominence,’ notes a new report from the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council, which catapulted the winged bean to international fame among food researchers with its first report on the plant in 1975.  The 30-year-old article made it sound like it was on its way to edible stardom.   Yet, in Central America, you don’t see winged beans at any farmer’s markets and you don’t see them in stores.  It’s also ironic that many of the garden savvy people I know, are completely unaware on this crop.  (I was until last year) What happened to the poor winged bean?  Let’s bring it back!

Winged beans are also known as the Goa bean, asparagus pea, four-angled bean,four-cornered bean, Hunan Bean, Manila bean, Mauritius bean, and winged pea.

Why Grow Winged Beans?

Winged beans do seem to be another “weapon against malnutrition” in our list of survival crops. They grow in poor soil, fix nitrogen, function as a cover crop, can be grown alongside corn and other crops, thrive in hot humid conditions and are drought tolerant.  Like moringa, yuca, katuk, pigeon peas and other super plants, winged beans are ‘must grow’ for any survival garden.  They act as a nitrogen fixers and be grown as companion plants. Winged beans can also be grown along the ground as a cover crop to protect the soil and crowd out weeds.

 How to Grow Winged Beans

Winged beans tolerate a wide range of soil PH’s and temperatures.  However, they cannot tolerate frost.  They need to have a good amount of moisture in the soil to produce pods, however the plant can survive droughts.  They normally pop up after 7-10 days.  You can speed up the germination process by scarring the seed husk and/or soaking overnight in water.  If you’re in area’s with iguanas, I highly suggest protecting the starts with wire.  Winged beans sprouts seem to be a lizard favorite.    They can also be started in pots or indoors, then transplanted when they reach 6-12 inches high.   They will need a trellis or stake of some sort to produce well.  I plant them alongside my tomato racks and both plants seem to do fine.   If grown with corn, the corn-stalk matures first, is harvested and the winged bean uses the stalk for support.

Most varieties are sensitive to day length which makes them difficult to grow in temperate climates. Our last batch in Costa Rica, just started producing pods in September/October.   You can get seeds of daylength-neutral varieties from the non-profit Organization,Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO).  Some of these varieties can produce a large amount of pods right before the first frost. Regardless of what species you get,  I would suggest planting them for their edible leaves and roots. They also make great use of vertical space if you’re low on dirt.


Sources and Links

Encyclopedia Of Life – Winged Bean

Winged Bean Leaf Nutrition Data

NY Times 1982 Winged Bean Article

Houston Press Farmer’s Market Spotlight 

Winged Bean Fights Cancer


Winged Bean Salad With Fresh Coconut

Linda’s Four Winged Bean Salad