Do you know about lima beans? 

It was a cryptic question, posed by friends who I consider garden experts. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond.  

I know some things about limas, I replied, sharing that I am a lima bean lover. I relayed the story of my first time seeing a fresh pod in my late ‘20s, and the special gardener that grew them.  

My friend continued, “How do you prepare them?” Boil, drain and finish with lots of butter or sometimes mix with corn as succotash, I answered.  

“Did you know you can’t eat them raw?” she asked. Yes, I do. Like cashews, red kidney beans, cassava, nutmeg, bitter almonds and rhubarb leaves, lima beans have a toxin that can prove poisonous. 

I asked if she had consumed them raw. “Only a few,” she said, “but I’m still here, because I found out quickly, while looking for recipes online, that I shouldn’t be munching on raw beans.”  For everyone’s reference, at least 10 minutes of boiling are requisite for safety (and deliciousness).  

“But you know,” she said, “never in my 80 years have I heard of poisonous lima beans!” 

Thank goodness we didn’t have a lima lethality. And since the experience left her not wanting to eat any more of these bulbous beans, cooked or otherwise, I scored my favorite fresh beans grown by my favorite gardeners.  

In the case of lima beans, the compound linamarin is the poisonous problem, turning into cyanide when the beans are eaten raw. Luckily, our body can deal with small amounts, so it won’t be an instant deathwatch if a few are consumed.  

Also, the domestic and commercial lima beans grown in this country have less of the compound than varieties found in other countries.  

Consider my friends and the beans hardy, since the UMass Extension Vegetable Program declares that “all beans, except lima, are relatively easy to grow in New England.” The New England Vegetable Management Guide explains that the seeds need warm soil for germination and the long maturity time for these beans restricts their productivity in our area.  

That doesn’t dissuade the Athearns of Morning Glory Farm. Simon Athearn shared that the farm usually grows limas, though didn’t this year. He explains that customers often overlook them, but shares that they are a favorite of his dad, Jim. Clearly, I am in good company.

California, Delaware, Maryland and Wisconsin top the list of states that produce the most lima beans. And though one variety of the bean came from South America (yes, the name lima comes from Lima, Peru, even if the pronunciations are different), the United States are copious bean growers and can track domestic production back to indigenous people in the southern states.  

The bean’s scientific namesake, phaseolus lunatus, comes from its moon-shaped seed. This seed has been historically heralded in ancient cultures. Peru’s Moche people elevated it to a symbol of status and a representation of the warrior class. Pottery with lima bean-bodied fighters has been found. Research shows that this legume has been cultivated for more than 9,000 years.  

For its longevity, symbolism, beauty, taste and texture, I will always recommend the much-maligned butter bean. I may even try to grow them next year for fun and flavor or maybe nudge the Athearns to bring them back to the farm stand.

But never will I recommend munching them raw in the field or anywhere. With my friend’s experience, let’s just say we’ve bean there and done that.   

Suzan Bellincampi is islands director for Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown and the Nantucket Wildlife Sanctuaries. She is also the author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.