Vegetable Soybeans Are New in America
The soybean is not at present a widely popular garden vegetable in the United States. Its valuable properties are becoming appreciated, however, and it deserves to be used far more.
Soybeans (Soja max) have been grown in the Orient for more than 5,000 years, but, strangely enough, they appear to have been known in the Western World a scant 250 years. It is puzzling, indeed, that this plant of Chinese origin should have become established so late in the West (including western Asia, Europe, and the Americas), while many other species from China have been known and valued in the West for thousands of years. The wild soybean is still found in China.
The old Chinese name of this plant was sou, from which the names soi, soy, and soja doubtless were derived; hence our term "soybean." In support of the belief in its great antiquity of culture, there are more than 50 names, many of them quite different, for soybean in the Orient. Western names are remarkably similar as a result of its recent introduction into the Western World.
The first written record about soybean goes back to an old Chinese Materia Medica written between 2900 and 2800 B. C. There is, however, no known record of it in a European language older than A. D. 1712, when a German traveler reported finding it in Japan in 1691 and 1692.
Ship Captain Brought Soybeans to America
Some recent popular articles might be interpreted to mean that the soybean was unknown in the United States even a generation or two ago. Actually, the first record of it in this country was in an old encyclopedia published in Philadelphia in 1804. That article said it was a plant adapted to Pennsylvania and well worthy of cultivation there. It had been introduced about 1800 by the captain of a clipper ship who bought some of the beans to supplement his ship's stores. In 1829 it was being grown at Cambridge, Massachusetts, where it was considered a luxury.
In 1853 a Patent Office report referred to the soybean as the "Japan pea." It had been imported from Japan through San Francisco in 1850, then carried to Illinois and Ohio.
When Commodore Perry returned from his famous expedition to Japan in 1854, he brought additional seeds of the soybean. Between 1875 and 1900 a few more samples of seed were imported, either from Europe where there was a mild interest in it as a new plant-or from Japan. But as recently as 1900 only eight varieties of soybean were known in the United States, and they were all field types rather than "vegetable" types.
Although the soybean was introduced into France by missionaries returning from China in 1739 and was grown in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in England as early as 1790, it has remained an unimportant crop in Europe. There it has been grown more as a vegetable than as a field crop, just opposite to common practice in the United States.
About 15 million acres of soybeans are now grown annually in this country, chiefly for stock feed, oil for industrial purposes, flour for use in bakery and meat products, and proteins for the making of plastics. Foam fire-fighting materials are also prepared from soybeans.
The vegetable varieties of soybeans are gradually gaining favor in the United States, and a few companies are canning the immature seeds. They can also be preserved by dehydration or quick-freezing.
It was only about a dozen years ago that many Americans began to learn about vegetable varieties of soybean; yet their use as a vegetable is at least 1,500 years old and probably much older. In eating quality they are far superior to the field varieties, which are hardly suited for use as fresh garden vegetables.
Seedsmen in this country now list several varieties suitable for fresh use as a vegetable. Among them are Bansei and Fuji for early harvest; Hokkaido and Jogun for midseason or late harvest; Seminole and Rokusun for culture in the South.
The plants of most varieties are relatively large, so that the rows need to be two to two and one-half feet apart in the garden, with two to three inches between plants in the row. Since they take longer to reach harvest than many other vegetables and are rather large growing, they are not well adapted to very small gardens or to regions having short, cool summers.
A Highly Concentrated Food
The seeds of the soybean are exceedingly rich in oil and in protein. Although the yields may not appear as large as those of many other vegetables, the yield of true food value is good because the seeds are a highly concentrated food. The flavor is distinct and the texture rather smooth and buttery. Like most "new" foods, the soybean may require repeated trials to appreciate it and to learn bow to use it. Gardeners should consult their local experts about varieties and methods of growing and using this ancient "new" vegetable.