The Bay Bean
by Cheryl MillerI stumbled onto this little seen plant in the arroyo of El Migrino back in

2013, after bulldozers had graded the arroyo, and excavated a controllable path for

flood waters to flow.  The graders had moved and loosened the deep sand beds,

making “dikes” on both sides of their intended flood control measures.  Curious, I

took a drive out there to see what was happening, and low and behold, a “new plant” to me, was discovered. I have been to almost the entire coastline south of Magdalena Bay and never saw this species before.  It was exciting.

Lovely, delicate small pea shape flowers on a vine carrying thick waxy green leaves.  Hmmm, what is this I thought…so armed with my dozens of photographs, I scoured the Baja Plant Field Guide and found nothing close.  Went online and saw nothing either. So, I wrote to the author of the Field Guide, Dr. Jon Rebman Phd of San Diego Natural History Museum, and after a couple of attempts he categorized it as Canavalia rose or Canvalia maritima, another of its botanical names.  Dr. Rebman told me, despite his 21 years of study in the Baja California Peninsula, he had not seen this species personally before.  Elated I was able to assist in the categorization of a rarely seen plant in Baja, I shared with him my photos and its discovered location.

And so, began my journey into learning about this little gem of a plant.

Although rare here in the Baja Peninsula, Canavalia rose is tropical coastal plant found from Southern California, Texas and Florida, in the United States as far south as Brazil. It is found in the tropics of the South Pacific, Australia, Africa and on tropical islands.  It lives in coastal areas, is highly tolerant of salt, and grows in sandy soils.

Belonging to the Pea Family, Fabaceae, Canavalia rose or C. maritima is a legume and is also known as Beach Bean, Bay Bean, Seaside Jack-bean, Coastal Jack-bean, and MacKenzie Bean in English. It is known as frijol de playa, Frijolillo, haba del mar (Flora de Yucatán) and mate de costa in Spanish.

It grows as a thick mat of vines along the sandy soil, and is propagated by the seeds that are dispersed from 4 to 6 inch long flat, snow-pea-like pods with prominent ribbing, when dry, twist and deform, and in so doing, release the seeds from the pods to the soil. The seeds are also buoyant, which, when flood waters or high tides occur, allows the seeds to be dispersed farther from the mother areas along the coastal regions.  It is literally found on all continents where tropical and sub-tropic conditions occur.  Because of this maritime dispersal method, its origins are unknown and not thought to be aided by man in the least.

Propogation is easy, but scarify the seed before planting for best results.

The vines can become as long as 20 feet and almost an inch in diameter.  The leaves are thick, cordate shaped, occurring as a compound leaf, made up of three leaflets.  The leaves also fold up during the heat of the day, protecting the plant from expiring too much of its water supply in the hot sun.

Its flower is a purplish, pink pea-like with two lips and “hood”.  It flowers all year round, with its highest proliferation during the summer months. It is showy and is attractive to bees, insects and birds. Insects can be trapped in its trumpet like shape, but normally are the pollenization agents of the plant.

The Jackbean has a long and extensive history in the annals of man, and some of which is being rejuvenated today in certain sub-cultures.  (More later).

Documented in their journals, the Beach Bean became an important food for the British explorer, Captain James Cook and his crew during their voyage around the world from 1768 to 1771. But, one word of caution, the mature bean is toxic until cooked, boiled or roasted, so don’t just toss a few back. The young pods and seeds are edible and used for food in northern Australia.  Personally though, if you are not familiar to what is mature or not mature, I suggest that you don’t try to eat them, unless you cook them thoroughly.

It is used to control soil erosion in many parts of the world.  It is promoted in xeriscape landscapes and makes a wonderful dune protector.

In Africa and Southeast Asia, the Canavalia rose is grown domestically as a food and for animal forage. The mature seeds of Canavalia ensiformis (a cousin to the C. rose or maritime), are roasted and used as a coffee substitute in the West Indies.

Traditional use in South America and the Gulf Coast of Mexico is drinking a tea made from the leaves. Other traditional uses in the world include an infusion made with the crushed roots and rubbed over the skin for rheumatism, general pain, skin disorders, and colds.

Jackbeans have been used for centuries by many cutures as jewelry.

In certain tribal cultures, the C. rose leaves were smoked in ritualistic ceremonies. Even today, Canavalia is smoked on the Gulf Coast of Mexico as a Marijuana substitute. Combined with hemp, one of the best drugs known to man, a legal plant, with similar properties thought to be very useful to simulate marijuana qualities, so they report. There is no record of its use in primitive societies as a sacred hallucinogen, although seeds have been found in graves in Oaxaca and Yucatan Mexico and in Peru, in sites dating from 300 B.C. to A.D and 900 Ad, reportedly used for magic and rituals. However, the C.maritima contains L-Betonicine, there is no evidence that this compound is an hallucinogen.  However, a number of users do report a calming affect and a similar sensation as to when you smoke your first cigarette. Not enough research has been performed to know if there are carcenogens, tars or other materials that are as harmful as cigarettes when smoking this plant leaf, but there is apparently a huge following for its smoking  use. Today, there are numerous worldwide websites, expounding the smoking qualities of the Sea Bean leaf.  Used as a Tabaco substitute or as an enhancer for other marijuana substitutes, many websites are selling this leaf worldwide.  There are no known inherent psychedelic qualities in the plant, but it is reported that the leaf enhances the psychotropic effects of other tobacco and marijuana leaf substitutes. Sage or Salvia is one of the substitutes reported that become enhanced when mixed with the Jackbean leaf, reportedly quadrupling the effect. Kanna for instance seems to mix well with bay bean, although reports are uncommon. Pedicularis has been sold in blends with Baybean.

Now, I am not advocating the smoking of this plant or any other, I am just reporting the uses of this Baja plant in the world.  Do not take this as my personal advocacy. It is not. But, one website reports that smoking Bay Bean leaf in the following manner, “It has a dark, rich flavor, similiar to that of a dark imported cigar. When I speak of the dark flavor, I mean a taste similar to that of a lager beer, or a dark rich cigar, like a Cohiba.  A rich and robust aroma that's dark like chocolate or coffee is what I'm talking about. To me, the aroma and taste that Baybean has to offer is simply incredible. It's a nice, rich and relaxing smoke. The mellowing sensations accompanied with Baybean are also more favorable than any brand of smokes in my opinion.”. He also goes on to suggest combining the Sea Bean leaf with vanilla, licorice, chocolate, and fenu-greek. Sassafras root as being great combinations to your substitute “tobacco” with. 

Who would have thought?

Well, my little rare discovery, turns out to be quite a little bean full of surprises.  I hope one day, you too can see this plant in its’ glory on one of your adventurers here in the Baja!