WHEN World War II rumbled its way into my experience, I was still in elementary school in South Africa. Within weeks we were all enrolled in the war effort, knitting small woolen squares for blankets (given the circumstances, it was not an unmanly thing to do, we were told) - and gardening. Every little bit helped, so the slogan said. My war efforts were limited to decidedly off-square knitting and to tending runner beans, which grew into an acceptable shape all by themselves. The variety: scarlet runners, simply because a bottle full, intended for soups and stews, stood handily on the pantry shelf.
The beans grew into handsome vines, eight and more feet high, bearing beautiful red flowers that eventually turned into quite monstrous-size beans, to my childish eyes. Those that were picked early enough made fine snap beans. Those that escaped early detection simply contributed to the bottle on the pantry shelf. They served our family well during those troubled years.
While my knowledge of vegetable gardening has grown considerably since that time, my understanding and appreciation of the scarlet runner bean hasn't - until a conversation with John Jeavons of Ecology Action in Willits, Calif., brought me up to date.
Mr. Jeavons says the bean is much better known in Europe than it is on this side of the Atlantic. That's a pity, because what other bean can be grown as a shade plant (because of its vigorous growth), as an ornamental (red flowers), and as food (even the roots are edible)?
The bean pods grow big - 12 to 15 inches long and at least an inch wide. But you'll have to pick them at 8 to 10 inches if you want to serve them green (put them through a slicer to get great French beans).
At close to full size, shell the beans while the pod is still green for a green lima bean experience, or leave them to mature into dried beans. Unlike most beans, scarlet runners are perennial. In mild climates they can be left in the ground with a protective mulch covering to grow again the next year.
The records also show that those of us who live in tough winter climates can simply lift the roots, much as we might with dahlias, and store them in damp sand or light soil. The following spring they can be planted out to provide a three- to four-week jump on their seed-started brethren.
The somewhat tuberous roots have the crunchy feel of a water chestnut when eaten, so conventional wisdom has it that we should store such roots as we need for next year and eat the rest.
According to Jeavons, runners need a somewhat richer soil than bush beans, so dig in liberal amounts of compost.
Scarlet runners grow particularly well in England, which suggests they enjoy cooler summers than in many areas of the United States. But Jeavons is successful with the beans in Willits, where the nights are cool and the days often extremely hot. Scarlet runners are also a standard crop at Sturbridge Village, the Massachusetts re-creation of a typical early New England town.
Bountiful Gardens catalog (5798 Ridgewood Road, Willits, CA 95490) sells a scarlet runner called Scarlet Emperor, which in a London Times opinion pole was adjudged the best of all runners.
Since it's an heirloom, the edges have to be cut away to remove a tough string before cooking as used to be the case with all beans a few decades ago. Recently, however, Thompson & Morgan seed company (PO Box 1308, Jackson, NJ 08527) has introduced a stringless variety known as Butler that is otherwise just as vigorous and attractive in its growth habit as the originals.
The company could not confirm whether the roots of the new variety could be lifted and stored for next season as readily as the old varieties.
Turn the page for a delicious bean recipe you might want to try: Scarlet Runner Beans and Sesame 4 cups scarlet runner green beans 3 tablespoons peanut oil 1 tablespoon soy sauce 2 tablespoons vinegar 1 tablespoon Oriental sesame oil Freshly ground pepper to taste 1 tablespoon sesame seeds 1/2 cup scarlet runner bean flowers
Cut lengthwise along both sides of the bean to remove ridges and strings. Slice the pod on the diagonal between each seed.
Cook in boiling salted water until barely tender, about 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and cool.
Combine remaining ingredients except for seeds, and shake well in a jar. Toss beans and dressing.
Place sesame seeds in small saucepan, and cook over medium heat about 5 minutes until lightly toasted. Toss with beans
Cover and chill; then add bean flowers. Either red or white runner bean blossoms taste just like the bean and are attractive as garnish.