Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

The legumes (from the Latin legere, “to gather”) are plants in the bean family, the Leguminosae, whose members bear pods that contain several seeds. The term legume is also used to name their seeds. Many legumes are vines that climb on tall grasses and other plants to reach full sunlight, and like the grasses grow, go to seed, and die over a few months. The legumes produce seeds that are especially rich in protein, thanks to their symbiosis with bacteria that live in their roots and feed them with nitrogen from the air. The same symbiosis means that legumes actually enrich the soil they grow in with nitrogen compounds, which is why various legumes have been grown as rotation crops at least since Roman times. Their relatively large seeds are attractive to animals, and it’s thought that much of the remarkable diversity in the beans and peas is the result of survival pressures exerted by insects. Legume seeds are camouflaged by colored coats, and protected with an array of several biochemical defenses.