What are legumes? Are they vegetables or good for you?

What are Legumes?

What are legumes? Have a look in the supermarket and you can find them in the vegetable section the canned food section, deli, and also in the frozen food section. They are the peas, beans, and lentils which we often call vegetables. However they are a little special because the seeds form in a pod and because this they are called legumes.

Check your cupboard, fridge or freezer and you’ll probably find a few of these pod bearing fruits. Mung beans, soybeans, peas and beans are all examples. No matter what part of the world you are from you probably ate these super foods without even knowing what they were. Legumes or the dried beans (pulses) are a healthy source of protein and carbohydrates and they also happen to taste great.

How do we use Legumes?

We eat their fresh pods and seeds. We also feed them to livestock and plant their seeds in our gardens for a stunning summer display of brightly colored flowers. 

They are an important source of protein and carbohydrates in the developing world. They are so important that some cultures use legumes as their main source of protein or carbohydrates. In this article you can learn about these amazing plants.

You can also learn how to recognize these plants and what makes them different from other flowering plants. Once you have learned how to identify and why legumes are so important then discover popular peas and beans from around the world. When your ready head over to the  full legume guide for individual information. It’s a comprehensive list of legumes.

Table of contents

  • What are legumes
  • What are the uses?
  • Different types available.
  • Examples of the post popular legumes
  • Are the seeds good or bad for you?

What are Legumes? Let’s looks at the Fabaceae family.

Legumes are a group of plants which includes: lupins peas, and beans. This group of plants are also part of a  bigger family which is known as Fabaceae. Fabaceae are flowering plants which includes:trees, shrubs, perennial and also flowing annuals so the Fabaceae family covers all types of flowering plants. This family is one of the largest group of plants what consists of thousands of different species.

Here is an example of a legume on different kinds of plants. 

  • Trees such as Acacia Trees (wattle).
  • Shrubs such as gorse.
  • Perennials such as beans and clover.
  • Biennials such as sweet clover.
  • Annuals such as peas.

Characteristics of legumes 

Legumes consist of over 18000 different species and that is not including modern varieties or hybrids. Which makes identification hard. However if you want to know what is a legume then plants have characteristics which you can you use to visually identify them of other plants families. These include:

  • Flowers
  • Fruits
  • Leaves 
  • Roots

Flowers on legumes form in clusters, so on one stem there maybe many flowers. These clusters of can be broken into three different types of flower structure or inflorescence (wiki).

  • Umbels (white clover) 
  • Racemes (field pea)
  • Spike racemes (alfalfa) 

Legume flowers are often brightly colored which separates them from grass or cereal crops.  

Flowers often have five petals and five sepals. The flowers don’t last for long and they quickly bare fruit.

Look for seed pods to identify legumes. 

Legumes can be recognized because their seeds are protected inside pods. Since the pod protects seeds they are often soft and only harden when dry.

The pod protects the seed until the seed reaches maturity. At maturity the pod spits open, releasing seeds inside. In most cases not far from the mother plant. Inside one pod there can be many seeds.  While clover pods release soft seeds other legume plants have pods that open once both the pod and seed are dry. When dry these seed have a hard seed coat which protects the seed from rotting over winter months.

Leaves on Legume plants.

Next you can identify legumes by looking at the leaves. It is little harder and you have to know what to look out for. However there are a few characteristics  such as the leaf structure. On legume plants leaves may be Trifoliate, pinnate and palmate. It sounds difficult but it’s just how the leaves look on a stem. 

Trifoliate is one leaf which has three leaflets. Three leaf clover

Pinnate leaves have a long stem with leaflets on both sides which resemble a feather

Palmate leaves have four or more lobes or leaflets and look like an open hand. 

Some Legumes leaves such as clover have have watermarks. These watermarks vary in color and shape. These watermarks are used to identify different varieties of the same same species. 

Nitrogen fixing roots.

Almost all legumes have nitrogen fixing nodes on the roots system. The home provide a home to Nitrogen fixing bacteria called Rhizobia. Unlike other bacteria the relationship of the host plant and the Rhizobia bacteria are beneficial to each other. The host plant benefits from Nitrogen in the soil which it can use for leave development and the bacteria need the plant to survive. If you pull out a legume you can clearly see these nodes. 

What are legumes used for?

From agriculture to horticulture legumes play an important role in sustainability.

Legumes are very important for several reasons. The main reason for growing legumes is for food. The fruits are eaten fresh and put in salads. Sometimes they are boiled or stewed, dried peas and beans which are commonly known pulses store well and have been used in Europe, Asia Africa and the Middle East for thousands of years. 

Legumes are also fed to livestock 

Alfalfa is widely grown for summer forage for live stock. It provides animals with a valuable source of protein and energy. Since the have a high energy source, farmers may feed these crops to fatten cattle and sheep before putting their animal to market. They are sometimes fed to dairy cows to increase milk production.

Drought tolerance 

In many parts of the world soil is often too dry for grass to grow. Especially in a commercial faming operations which often require well managed irritation systems. Some legumes are drought tolerant such as lablab and cowpeas,  Often they are grown places which have dry soils such as Africa and Australia. 

Crop rotation

Legumes are often used for crop rotation the rest the soil. Over cropping or monoculture can result in reduced yield and an increased in diseases and pests. So a farming practice that has been used for thousands of years is crop rotation and legumes make a perfect choice. Farmers growing a root crop such as potatoes may grow a leaf crop the following year. These crops are then fed to livestock, bailed into hay or made into silage. Many farmers may dig the legumes back into the soil to improve soil structure and add nutrients back into the soil. 

In home gardens lupins and mustard are often grown together in vegetable gardens to fallow the soil. The lupins and mustard are dug into the soil a few weeks before planting a crop of vegetables. Home gardening do this not only to increase the nitrogen and improve the soil structure. It also suppresses weed growth prior to planting.

Example of legumes popular around the world.

Many countries have used legumes for thousands of years. Since the variety is so numerous cultures around the world use different legumes in their cuisine. Often plants grow naturally in the region they are used. Interestingly one legume or pulse may be used extensively in one country while another country the same legume maybe rarely used if at all. For example adzuki beans are popular in Japan, Korea and China. However in European Adzuki bean are rarely eaten. Even the common scarlet runner bean eaten in European see seldom seen in Asia. 

Examples of legumes popular in Europe

  • Fresh beans

    Often eaten raw in salads or boiled.

  • Fresh peas

    Peas are eaten without the pod and boiled. In England peas are sometimes mushed.

  • Lentils

    Although Lentils are less commonly eaten today. They played an important role in food security when food was in short supply and usually eaten in winter months.

Example of legumes popular in Asia.

Adzuki or Azuki beans in a small bowl. Adzuki beans are legumes popular in Asia.
  • Soybeans

    Soybeans widely used in Asian cuisine. Natto, Edomame, Tofu are just some examples.

  • Azuki beans or Adzuki bean

    The beans are often sweetened and made into a jam or paste and used in traditional sweets.

  • Snap beans (Ingenmame)

    A native bean from China and introduced to Japan in the 16th century.

Example of legumes popular in Africa.

What are legumes poplar in Africa? picture of string beans
  • Chickpeas (Garbanzo Beans)

    Chickpeas are the most important legume since they were introduced to Africa from the Middle East and first cultivated by the ancient Egyptians. They have also popular and used in many cultures for around 3500 years.

  • Common bean

    No matter what you call it whether it’s the common bean, snap bean, green bean, or French bean.  The Beans can harvested and used why dry. The common bean can be stored for a very long time if kept dry so the common bean is a very important bean when drought conditions make food scarce.

  • Cowpeas

    Cowpeas are also known as black-eyed peas and are native to West Africa. They are drought resistant and can grow on poor sandy soils. Cowpeas are mainly grown for their seeds which are high in protein. The beans are often used in curries, stews and ground into flour.

What are Legumes? Here are some different types.

Legumes eaten fresh

  • English peas
  • beans
  • soybeans
  • alfalfa sprouts
  • snow peas
Small bowl of fresh beans

Canned Legumes

  • English peas
  • sweet adzuki beans
  • borlotti beans
  • kidney beans
  • black beans (kuromame)
Canned legumes.

Fermented Legumes

  • Miso (Japan)
  • oubanjiang (China)
  • Douchi (China)
  • Natto (Japan)
  • Tauco (Indonesia)
Fermented soy beans called Natto

Dried Legumes

  • chickpeas
  • kidney beans
  • adzuki beans
  • Lentils
  • split peas
What are legumes? In the picture are Mung, Adzuki and black beans

Are legumes vegetables?

We often separate fruit and vegetables by the way we use them or how sweet they are.

“Are legumes vegetables?

Answer: Legumes are technically fruits and not vegetables. Although legumes in our kitchens are often green, non-sweet and we usually cook them. This is what we associate with vegetables but like tomatoes and pumpkins, the pods are in fact fruits. This includes greens peas, alls beans including kidney beans and lima beans.

Are peanuts legumes? Yes they are. In the picture is a bowl of peanuts with the shell on.
Legumes are often called vegetables. However technically they are fruits. Peanuts are also legumes and just like peas and beans, peanuts have an outer shell protecting the seed inside.

Are legumes good or bad for you?

With all diets or nutrition you should seek professional advice. I come from a horticultural background and have no knowledge have nutrition or medical complications. Please consult your medical practitioner for further information.

There is also some debate whether they are bad you. Much of the debate comes from if you replace meat which is high in nutrients with legumes which is naturally less dense in many of the body’s requirements. Just a strict diet would require careful monitoring and I do not recommend any chance in diet especially based on blog information. Instead I would like people to consider adding legumes as part of their diet and increase the variety of different foods they eat. Adding a few more peas and beans to your meals could have a some benefits here’s a small blog post from the America Heart Association.

Japanese Diet

The Japanese eat lot of portions of beans as well as other fruit, vegetables and meat. While portions are very small the Japanese eat a wide variety of foods. It’s not uncommon for Japanese to have miso soup and rice for breakfast. This simple breakfast has rice, Dashi (dried kelp and fish flakes) Miso (fermented soybeans) tofu made from soybeans, mushrooms, Diakon and carrots. That’s 8 different foods in a simple breakfast including two ingredients made from legumes, tofu and miso.

Western diets used to be healthy

We used to eat like a wide variety of foods like the  Japanese and a traditional Western soup mix might contain the following:

  • green split peas
  • yellow split peas
  • lentils

I’ve seen soup mixes with up to 13 different pulses that’s even before adding bone morrow to the stock and other vegetables. Our Western diet used to be incredibly varied and we ate a lot more pulses than we do today. Are they good for you. I’ll let you decide.

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