Plant Profile: Cherokee Trail of Tears Bean

Each winter, whether I’m container gardening, borrowing space, or planting my own garden – I meticulously plan out every square inch of soil. I rearrange crop rotations, I daydream about harvests, and I map where I will plant what, when.

Then the seed catalogs come in.

And I forget everything I’ve planned and just order everything that speaks to me. Even when I don’t really have space for it.

cherokee trail of tears
Photo by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

That is how I ended up with Cherokee Trail of Tears last year. It is a shiny black bean on a pole habit that matures in 65 days. I hadn’t really planned on growing beans. Grocery store beans are so cheap, I usually save my garden space for something more exciting that really tastes best home grown – like herbs I can’t get in the grocery store. No – not weed. Actual herbs.

But as I was flipping through Baker Creek’s 2018 catalog, I came across this description:

“This heirloom was brought from Tennessee by the Cherokee people as they were marched to Oklahoma by the Federal Government in 1839 over the infamous ‘Trail of Tears’ that left so many dead and suffering. This prolific variety is good as a snap or dry bean and has shiny, black beans. Vigorous, vining plants.”

And it spoke to me. It broke my heart. And without much more thought, I requested it.

For the 2018 growing season, I had already set aside one bed for corn – incidentally, a specialty corn I had saved for a few years which was bred by Cherokee Native Carl “White Eagle” Barnes, a famous (at least, famous in the seed world) corn collector and conservationist. The corn was Carl’s Glass Gem. To me, it just seemed natural to inter-sow these beans into Carl’s corn bed. So, I did.

The corn took off and did decently, although I should have worked harder at hand pollinating such a small patch. The kernels are just as pretty as folks say – with pinks, purples, greens, oranges, whites, and blues mixed all together. But this post isn’t about the corn. It’s about the beans.

They were breathtakingly beautiful. My pictures really don't do them justice. 

The catalog description did not mention their perfect purple flowers, or the long pods that mature from green to a crimson purple to deep, leathery violet. The vines were indeed vigorous and actually overtook the 8 foot high corn stalks before curling off into long tendrils. The beans themselves were quite prolific as well – most pods having 8 to 10 shiny black beans.

Even though I just tucked a few beans in between some corns stalks (maybe 8 vines total?), and let them all dry (instead of picking an early crop before leaving the drying beans) – I harvested enough beans to save, sell, and have in some soups. And that was with Taylor’s “help” shelling – he loves to shell beans, but he eats more than he puts in the basket. Yes, he likes to eat them raw.

This coming year, I plan on planting them again but I will give them the space they deserve. If you are planning on growing them too, here are some of my recommendations (specifically geared towards these beans and the Ogden climate):

Wait until the soil is good and warm before sowing. If you don’t have a soil thermometer, get a meat thermometer (they’re usually cheaper or you might already have one) and make sure the soil is above 65 degrees Fahrenheit. 70 is better. You can pre-soak your beans for about an hour in luke warm water before planting to speed up germination.

If you are saving seed, choose your best plants to save seed from and don’t pick from them – let the seeds dry on the vine. Use your other vines for snap beans, and later dry beans. Make sure your beans are at least 20 feet away from other bean varieties to avoid any potential cross pollination. You can also make sure to only plant beans of different colors – if they DO cross pollinate, it is obvious because the beans themselves will be the wrong color. 

Plan on watering these a little more than the rest of your garden. They lived fine when I left them for a week or so, but they produced better when I watered twice a week and mulched heavily. To be clear – I aim to get my garden the equivalent of 1 inch of water per week, unless it gets up into the 90’s and higher; at that point, I shoot for 2 inches of water total, done over two separate waterings during the week.

The vines exceed 8-10 feet; plan to trellis accordingly. They overtook the corn and actually stunted some of the cobs’ growth because they wound so tightly. It would be better to trellis them on a structure rather than another crop.

That is all I have for the Cherokee Trail of Tears Bean. I hope you’ll think about growing it in your garden, too!


If you are of Native American heritage and would like seeds from this or any of the native heirlooms I have, please feel free to reach out – I’m happy to send you some for free as long as I have some to send. If I run out, I’ll make sure to get you some the following season or as soon as I can get more. You may also be eligible for free seed from Native Seed and should contact them to learn more.