A Beautiful — and Useful — Bean

Pink fuzzybean ~ Strophostyles umbellata

Only three species are included in the genus Strophostyles, and all three are found in Texas. Popularly known as fuzzybeans because of the texture of their seed pods, they can be difficult to distinguish from one another, particularly since their flowers are similar.

One  way is to note differences in their leaves and bracts. The amberique-bean, sometimes called the sand or trailing fuzzybean (S. helvola) and the slickseed or small-flower fuzzybean (S. leiosperma) have bracts at the base of the flowers that tend to be acute, while those of the pink, or trailing, fuzzybean (S. umbellata) are more blunt.

I found this pair of what I believe to be pink fuzzybeans near the entrance to the Big Thicket’s Solo Tract on September 6. Despite their small size, their shape and color attracted my attention. Only later did I learn that the Houma people of Louisiana made a decoction of the seeds to treat typhoid, and the Iroquois used the leaves to treat poison ivy rashes. I’m not worried about typhoid, but given my limited ability to spot poison ivy in the wild, a fuzzybean poultice might be as useful as the flower is beautiful.


Comments always are welcome.

57 thoughts on “A Beautiful — and Useful — Bean

    1. Now, that’s funny. I did manage to come home recently with only photos of poison ivy leaves, but it still wouldn’t hurt to learn to make the poultice. From what my friendly local Walgreens clerk tells me, there are plenty of yard workers, line crews, hikers, and gardeners who would buy it.

      1. Poison ivy was everywhere in Connecticut where I grew up. I used to get rashes from it when I was careless, but eventually seemed to become desensitized to it. Poison oak is one I did not run into until I came here, but I have been able to steer clear of it.

        1. I never encountered poison ivy or oak until about the past three years. Funny, how that time frame coincides with my beginning to spend more time in the east Texas woods. Poison ivy doesn’t affect me so badly, but a huge patch of flowering poison oak got me a few weeks ago. I didn’t have a clue what it was, but it had such pretty flowers I spent quite some time photographing it. It took a day for the signs to appear, and about three weeks for them to completely disappear. But, now I know how to identify poison oak!

      1. I like the pea family in general, and I think these are especially appealing. The color is so nice, and despite their small size they’re quite complex little flowers.

        On another subject entirely, have you come across any Egyptian geese (Alopochen aegyptiaca )in your area? A pair showed up yesterday in the marina where I’m working; I read that there are populations in Texas, California, and Florida. As soon as I can get some decent photos, I’ll post them. It shouldn’t be hard. They’re not especially shy, and they seem to like hanging out at the swimming pool and the palapas.

        1. Well looking at it on Wiki; it looks familiar but probably is reminding me of some duck or other!! :) next time I’m out I’ll pay attention and report back.

          Those flowers are quite pretty and I always do enjoy a bright flower against the green background as you have here.

    1. One of the characteristics of the genus that distinguishes it from other members of the bean family is that the keel and wings curve upward in front of the standard, instead of remaining straight. I can see how that would remind you of wild orchids; the curves of the flower are one of its most pleasing features, at least to my eye.

  1. It is a very beautiful flower, and a very beautiful photo of it, Linda. Plants offer a rich pharmacopeia of medicines, not surprising as they have to combat viruses and bacteria themselves.

    1. I was pleased with the photos, Lavinia; I’m glad you enjoyed them. I have a friend who dabbles in herbal remedies, and I know she’s made use of fuzzybean in the past. I suspect it was another of the species, but I’ll be interested to learn how she utilizes it.

  2. Ah, interesting. Since we don’t have jewelweed here, which is what people use for PI in the NE, this sounds like an interesting alternative. I love the Strophostyles!

    1. When I looked at the USDA map, I was surprised to see jewelweed listed for Texas, though barely. It’s shown in four counties along the Red River, and in three more well north, around Nacogdoches. The plant certainly is a beauty. The first article I read about its use for poison ivy made the point that a jewelweed ‘mash’ is more effective than extracts; I suppose that ‘mash’ is equivalent to the ‘poultices’ mentioned in the historical literature.

  3. I can never identify poison ivy either. Even if someone points at it & says, that’s it, I still won’t remember what to look for later. Am I DELIBERATELY not retaining that information? Or do I have some sort of cognitive impairment? Let’s be polite & not ask – ha!

    1. It’s clearly not cognitive impairment, but I do think that ‘green and leafy’ can be hard to sort out. This is a good article, with good illustrations.The oil is so sneaky — even after I got home from my dosing with poison oak, it took me a while to get everything cleaned up.

  4. I don’t think I’ve ever seen fuzzy bean. How big are the flowers? If you had gotten poison ivy as often as I did growing up you’d be able to spot it at any distance.

    1. The flowers are small: less an an inch across. The next time you’re at the beach in the growing season, you might look for them there; S. helvola runs along the dunes.

      I suspect you’re right about lack of experience playing a role. Because I never encountered it in my younger years, and since it’s not part of the beach-and-boat world, I just never thought about it when I headed into the woods. I’m learning.

    1. I think the bit of burgundy in the flower and the way it’s structured makes it more than usually appealing. Like you, I’m not a huge fan of ‘sugary-sweet’ pink flowers, but if their pink is combined with some other color, they become more interesting.

    1. Exactly! Your sweet peas and these fuzzybeans both belong to the Fabaceae: the pea or legume family of plants. They’re everywhere! Soybeans, bluebonnets, clover, and acacia all belong in the group, and many of the flowers are gorgeous.

    1. The name reminds me of the old childhood ditty, with a revision:

      “Fuzzy-wuzzy was a bean;
      in gardens he was seldom seen.
      As impish as a garden elf,
      he grew and bloomed, then shelled himself.”

  5. I’m glad I’m not the only one who has trouble with seeing poison ivy. I don’t think it bothers me, but still, you’d think I could be better at the identifications.

    Those are lovely–and useful. Such a pure pink and the form of the flower seems like something that O’Keefe might have painted, if she’d ever seen one.

    1. Those curves certainly are O’Keeffe-like. That such a small flower can contain so many pleasing details always is a surprise. On the other hand, many flowers in the Fabaceae have the same lovely lines: the various lupines, mountain laurel, Baptisias, Tephrosias. I really enjoy them all.

  6. Poison ivy treatments are always a good thing to know about. Jewelweed is my go-to in the growing season, but if I catch PI in the off-season, I’m stuck with the less effective calamine lotion.

    1. I think I’ve found a new trick for immediate relief. I tuck a few individually packaged Zeiss lens wipes in my camera bag, and when I get a sense that I might have made contact with Demon Ivy, I pull one out and wipe down my hands or whatever. It’s a convenient way to carry alcohol, which cuts right through the Urushiol. If nothing else, it slows things down a bit..

  7. The flower looks like a small orchid/sweet pea mashup. I’m not much of a pink fan, but that dark magenta accent color appeals.
    Typhoid thinned the ranks of many of the current generation’s “great-great” ancestors, more than a couple of mine, in fact, — my grandmother’s younger sister, for one.

    1. Your comment about typhoid sent me to my vaccination records, and sure enough: multiple typhoid vaccinations were right there, along with smallpox, cholera, and yellow fever. There were a couple of polio boosters that I’d forgotten about, as well as DPT, and even gamma globulin. Anyone who’s traveled knows the value of immunizations.

      I don’t like mashed peas, but I like the idea of your orchid/sweet pea mashup. Speaking of peas, do you remember this? “I eat my peas with honey; I’ve done it all my life. It makes the peas taste funny, but it keeps them on my knife.”

    1. They are sweet little flowers, and the various species are pretty widely distributed. I was happy to find this almost-perfect example, and pleased that the photo turned out so well.

    1. Thank you, Derrick. In the process of learning a bit more about our poisonous plants — ivy, oak, and sumac — I learned something even more intriguing about the nasty urushiol oil. It’s also found in cashews, pistachios, and mangos. I’ve never eaten mangoes since reacting badly to the fruit. I assumed it was the fruit itself that was the problem, but it may have been leftover urushiol from the skin. And, because the oil is in the shells of cashews, that’s why they’re sold without the shell.

    1. Thank you so much, Pete. I certainly was pleased with the way these photos turned out. We often enough produce photos that aren’t quite what we hoped for, but in this case, the result was better than I’d hoped. I’m glad you enjoyed them!

  8. It’s a gorgeous plant. I am quite willing to ignore its alleged benefits and accept it for the beauty that it is. I suspect that many Texans may now be keeping an eye open for this little gem.

    1. In your part of the world, you could keep your eye out for this one’s genus-mate: Strophostyles helvola, which grows much farther to the north, and is found in Ontario and in New York’s lakeside counties. All three species are pretty, although I’d say these were exceptionally so.

      By the way, I received my first email notification from Travels With Birds. Happiness abounds!

    1. I didn’t know the name ‘fuzzybean’ when I took the photos. Now, I’m going to be watching for other plants that have produced some of those beans. I know some peas — and even bluebonnets — produce pods that are somewhat fuzzy; I’m curious to see if this plant’s pods take it to another level.

  9. A beauty of a bean, indeed. Perfectly presented. Wow, what a genius use of a lens wipe! I’d never have considered that but always have them. Fortunately I rarely contact poison ivy but Mary Beth does so I’ll make sure she has a nice supply of them. The more one learns about “lesser” developed cultures the more amazing it is how many effective remedies they had using natural accessed cures.

    1. There are some photos that just make me happy, and this pair certainly does. Sometimes, photos don’t quite live up to my expectations, but sometimes they exceed them. These certainly did.

      When I got my bad case of what I think was poison oak and was trying to clean up everything in sight, a reader suggested lens wipes as the best way to clean up residue on my camera body and lens barrel. I figured that what’s good for the camera would be good for the photographer, and sure enough: there were articles galore online about alcohol’s efficacy in removing the oil. All of the usual advice to wash clothes, take a shower, etc., aren’t especially useful when I’m four hours from home and in the midst of the woods. But an alcohol wipe? It’s an easy and immediate solution.

  10. Delightful photographs! I can see why they make you happy – the soft light and the angles you’ve photographed the flowers at show off their gentle curves and sculptural shapes beautifully.

    1. I’m often surprised and sometimes astounded by the way a detail can be picked out and presented with a camera. I certainly surprised myself with these photos. The flowers were in quite a tangle of growth in a ditch, not plucked and arranged in a studio, and yet the images remind me of what you’ve been able to do with your ‘subjects’!

      1. I think being able to isolate and emphasise with the camera is one of the big pleasures of photography. And it can be an interesting challenge!

  11. I’m right there with you on the poison ivy, still can’t reliably ID it. So I may have to take a trip out that way to pick up some fuzzybeans. Of course if I do I’m sure I’ll later learn I could have found some here. These are beautiful and fascinatingly shaped flowers.

    1. If I understand this rightly, one thing that distinguishes the Strophostyles genus from other members of the family is the way the flower’s keel bends back toward the standard; that’s what gives it that unique shape that can be a little hard to sort out at first. There are only three species in the genus, and two of them are in your area, so you shouldn’t have to travel very far at all to find them.

    1. So many plants have uses that we never suspect. It’s fun to find one that’s both attractive and useful, although finding my alcohol wipes is a more dependable approach than searching for the plant when I’m in need!

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