Velvet bean (Mucuna pruriens) is a legume with numerous health benefits. The plant grows as a vine so some sort of support is needed when growing it in the garden.
The vine climbs by twining around adjacent supports, but the stem remains thin all the way to the base of the plant, even though it may reach 15-20 feet in height. Leaves are tri-foliate.
This is a nitrogen-fixing legume so it has low nutrient requirements, and may benefit other inter-planted crops.
Purplish flowers appear in pendant clusters starting in mid- to late summer.
The pods swell quickly and are dark green covered in black fuzzy hairs. In some varieties these hairs are skin irritants that make shelling the beans a literal pain, but the cultivar M. pruriens var. utilis is the non-itchy variety.
At the end of the growing season the vines dry up and the pods turn completely black and hard (2-3 months after flowering). The pods retain the velvet-textured covering even after they are dried and each contains 5-6 seeds.
At this point the beans can be shelled out for home use. Seed color varies with the different cultivars and may be white, black, marbled or speckled.
Treatment to make the seed edible is by boiling in water for one hour, pressure-cooking for 20 minutes, or soaking in water for 48 hours and then boiling in water for 30 minutes. The beans can also be roasted and ground to make coffee; in some parts of Central America the plant is known as Nescafe!
In some regions velvet bean is used as a green manure or cover crop in fields. It can also be harvested for forage or silage.
Mucuna pruriens is native to southern China and eastern India. The plant requires a 6-9 month growing season to mature the seeds, so it is best suited to subtropical climates if you are growing it for the beans. It can be grown anywhere as a cover or forage crop.
The health benefits of velvet bean have been widely studied. The findings reveal "it is a good source of food, as it is rich in crude protein, essential fatty acids, starch content, and certain essential amino acids ... all parts of the Mucuna plant possess medicinal properties. The main phenolic compound is L-dopa (5%), and M. pruriens seeds contain some components that are able to inhibit snake venom. In addition, methanolic extracts of M. pruriens leaves have demonstrated anti-microbial and anti-oxidant activities in the presence of bioactive compounds such as phenols, polyphenols and tannins, and preliminary studies on keratinocytes support its possible topical usage to treat redox-driven skin diseases. Collectively, the studies cited in this review suggest that this plant and its extracts may be of therapeutic value with regard to several pathologies..."
A more detailed listing of the health benefits of Mucuna shows it is effective for diabetes, spasms, inflammation, infertility, pain, growth hormone deficiencies and as an aphrodisiac.