Strophostyles helvola (L.) Elliot

Wild bean (trailing wild bean)

Fabaceae [Steyermark: Leguminosae, Popilionoideae]

Strophostyles seeds are generally found in sieve sizes greater than 2.0 mm. Occasionally, pods are found as well (see Fritz 1986). Strophostyles helvola is found in archaeobotanical samples from sites of both foraging and agricultural groups.



       The modern seeds are oblong with square ends, 5-10 mm long and 2-3 mm wide, with a grayish brown scurfy outer coat (Figure 1). The linear marginal hilum is covered with white and bordered by a narrow black outline. The pods are 4-9 cm long (Figure 2). Strophostyles helvola is easily identified archaeologically due to its long, diagnostic hilum. It is also longer and narrower than other legumes. Smaller fragments of bean make identification more difficult because they can be easily confused with other legumes, including Phaseolus vulgaris L. and Phaseolus polystachios L.


Archaeological Distribution

       Strophostyles helvola is found from the Middle Archaic through historic times in the Eastern Woodlands. Archaeological wild bean has been recovered in Alabama, Oklahoma, the Arkansas Ozarks, and Illinois. It has been consistently recovered in the American Bottom area, generally in low numbers (Johannessen 1984).

The Modern Plant and Its Distribution

       There are three species: Strophostyles umbellata (Muhlenb. ex. Willd.) Britton, Strophostyles leiosperma (Torry & A. Gray) Piper, and Strophostyles helvola. Strophostyles helvola is a herbaceous annual vine found in a variety of habitats, including beaches, thickets, open woods, open areas and old fields. Smith (1992:261) records finding wild bean in association with Chenopodium berlandieri which is not surprising given Chenopodium's need for nitrogen rich soil. Fritz also finds this association archaeologically in the Ozarks (1986). Strophostyles’ modern distribution is wider than its archaeological distribution. It is found from Quebec to Minnesota, South Dakota and Colorado, and south from Florida to Texas. Beans are available in the late summer and early autumn months.



       Although some archaeological occurrences of wild bean could be the result of natural seed dispersion, as it does grow in disturbed soils, " has been recorded in frequencies great enough that one can conclude with near certainty that it was used as a food" (Asch and Asch 1985:387). Wild bean is smaller than common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), but it has similar nutritional value. "Furthermore, because it is substantially larger than indigenous starchy seed cultigens, it may have had subsistence value greater than its numbers would indicate" (Parker 1991:314). Wild beans were probably prepared in many of the same ways as cultivated beans. Although they could be eaten green, they were often dried. Ethnohistorically, the roots were boiled and mashed and used for food as well (Yanovsky 1936:38).

       The Houma used Strophostyles helvola as a disease remedy, with a decoction of bean being taken for typhoid. The Iroquois used it as a dermatological aid, with the leaves being rubbed on parts affected by poison ivy or warts (Moerman 1986).



Asch, D. L. and N. B. Asch

    1985   Archeobotany. In Smiling Dan: Structure and Function at a Middle Woodland Settlement in
            the Illinois Valley, edited by B. D. Stafford and M. B. Sart, pp. 327-401. Center for American
            Archaeology Research Series Vol. 2. Kampsville, Illinois.

Fritz, G. J.

    1986   Prehistoric Ozark Agriculture: The University of Arkansas Rockshelter Collections.
            Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina,
            Chapel Hill.

Johannessen, S.

    1984   Paleoethnobotany. In American Bottom Archaeology, edited by C. Bareis and J. Porter,
            pp. 197-214. University of Illinois Press, Urbana.

Moerman, D. E.

    1986   Medicinal Plants of Native America, Vol. 1. Technical Reports No. 19. Museum of
            Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Parker, K. E.

    1991   Sponemann Phase Archaeobotany. In The Sponemann Site: The Formative Emergent
            Mississippian Phase Occupations, edited by A. Fortier, T. Maher, and J. Williams, pp. 377-
            420. American Bottom Archaeology FAI-270 Report, Vol 23. University of Illinois Press,

Smith, B. D.

    1992   Rivers of Change: Essays on Early Agriculture in Eastern North America. Smithsonian
            Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

Yanovsky, E.

    1936   Food Plants of the North American Indians. United States Department of Agriculture
            Miscellaneous Publications, No. 237.

Written by:  Malaina Brown