1. Family: Fabaceae Lindl.
    1. Genus: Phaseolus L.
      1. Phaseolus lunatus L.

        Phaseolus lunatus is known for its edibles seeds which are enjoyed by millions of people throughout the world. Also known as butter bean on account of its creamy taste, lima bean adds flavour, protein and important minerals such as manganese and iron, to a wide variety of dishes. It is also highly valued for its medicinal properties.


    Papilionaceae, Hutchinson and Dalziel. Flora of West Tropical Africa 1:2. 1958

    A rank-growing twiner, biennial, with half-woody stems
    Rather small greenish-white or bluish flowers.
    The Lima bean.

    Leguminosae, B. Mackinder, R. Pasquet, R. Polhill and B. Verdcourt. Flora Zambesiaca 3:5. 2001

    Perennial or biennial climber, sometimes subshrubby, 1–4.5 m long.
    Stems glabrous or pubescent.
    Leaflets 3, 3–15 × 1.2–10 cm, the laterals oblique, ovate to lanceolate or narrowly rhombic, acute or acuminate, ± rounded at the base, sparsely pubescent or glabrous; petiole 1.5–19 cm long; rhachis 0.7–5 cm long; petiolules 3–5 mm long; stipules 2–3.5 mm long, ovate-lanceolate, persistent.
    Inflorescences lax, few–several-flowered; rhachis 1–7 cm long; peduncle 1.5–30 cm long; pedicels 5–10 mm long; bracts persistent, 1.5 mm long, lanceolate; bracteoles persistent, 1.5–2 × 0.5–1 mm, elliptic or ovate, (1)3–7-nerved.
    Calyx puberulous; tube 1.5–2.5 mm long; lobes 5–8 mm long, broadly triangular, the upper pair joined to form an emarginate lip.
    Standard white, yellowish-buff or pale rose, 5–7 × 5–8.5 mm, rounded or oblate-oblong, emarginate, sparsely pubescent or glabrous outside; keel 1–1.4 cm long, spirally incurved for 11/2 turns.
    Pods (4.5)5–10.5(13) × 1.2–2.2(2.5) cm, oblong-falcate or oblong-oblanceolate, 3–4-seeded, compressed, apiculate at the apex, glabrous or pubescent.
    Seeds very variable in colour, mostly white or purple, 10–15 × 8–12 × 5–5.5 mm, reniform or rhomboid-reniform, compressed; hilum whitish, 2.5–4 mm long

    Leguminosae, J. B. Gillett, R. M. Polhill & B. Verdcourt. Flora of Tropical East Africa. 1971

    Perennial or biennial climber or sometimes subshrubby, 1–4·5 m. long.
    Stems glabrous or pubescent.
    Leaflets 3, the laterals oblique, ovate to lanceolate or narrowly rhombic, 3–15 cm. long, 1·2–10 cm. wide, acute or acuminate, ± rounded at the base, sparsely pubescent or glabrous; petiole 1·5–19 cm. long; rhachis 0·7–5 cm. long; petiolules 3–5 mm. long; stipules ovate-lanceolate, persistent, 2–3·5 mm. long.
    Inflorescences lax, few–several-flowered; rhachis 1–7 cm. long; peduncle 1·5–30 cm. long; pedicels 5–10 mm. long; bracts persistent, lanceolate, 1·5 mm. long; bracteoles persistent, elliptic or ovate, 1·5–2 mm. long, 0·5–1 mm. wide, (1–)3–7-nerved.
    Calyx puberulous; tube 1·5–2·5 mm. long; lobes broadly triangular, 5–8 mm. long, the upper pair joined to form an emarginate lip.
    Standard white, yellowish-buff or pale rose, rounded or oblate-oblong, 5–7 mm. long, 5–8·5 mm. wide, emarginate, sparsely pubescent or glabrous outside; keel 1–1·4 cm. long, spirally incurved for 11/2 turns.
    Pods oblong-falcate or oblong-oblanceolate, 3–4-seeded, (4·5–)5–10·5(–13) cm. long, 1·2–2·2(–2·5) cm. wide, compressed, apiculate at the apex, glabrous or pubescent.
    Seeds very variable in colour, mostly white or purple, reniform or rhomboid-reniform, compressed, longest dimension 1–1·5 cm., shorter dimension 0·8–1·2 cm., 5–5·5 mm. thick; hilum whitish, 2·5–4 mm. long.
    Fig. 95, p. 616.

    Kew Species Profiles

    General Description

    Phaseolus lunatus is known for its edibles seeds which are enjoyed by millions of people throughout the world. Also known as butter bean on account of its creamy taste, lima bean adds flavour, protein and important minerals such as manganese and iron, to a wide variety of dishes. It is also highly valued for its medicinal properties.

    Species Profile
    Geography and distribution

    Lima bean originated in the Neotropics and has two main centres of domestication. The small-seeded varieties were developed in Central America and the large-seeded types were cultivated in South America (mainly in Peru) as far back as 6,000 BC.

    Following Columbus’ 'discovery' of America, humans spread lima bean throughout the continent and it was subsequently introduced into Europe and Asia. Portuguese 'explorers' brought butter beans to Africa during the slave trade. Today lima bean is cultivated throughout the tropics.


    Overview: Phaseolus lunatus can either be an annual (completing its life-cycle in one year) or a  perennial (living for several years) herb. Some forms of the species are erect with trailing branches while others are climbing vines up to four and half metres long ( occasionally up to 8 metres). 

    Roots: The roots can extend 2 metres into the soil and are either thin or swollen. 

    Leaves: The leaves are arranged alternately along the main stems and each leaf is composed of three leaflets, with the terminal leaflet held away from the two opposite lateral leaflets (the whole leaf being referred to as pinnately trifoliolate). The petiole (leaf stalk) can be from 1.5 to 19 cm long. 

    Flowers: The stalked flowers are clustered on small fleshy nodes along an unbranched axis (this a pseudoracemose inflorescence); the inflorescences are axillary (arising in the axilof the stem and the leaf petiole). The inflorescences are sometimes panicles, in which the main axis has several lateral branches. The flowers are white, pale green or rose-violet and papilionaceous (pea-flowered). Each flower has 10 stamens (male reproductive organs) 9 of which are fused into a partial tube or sheath and 1 free. The ovary (female reproductive organ) is about 3 mm long, and has a covering of minute hairs. The style has a terminal coil with a collar of hairs below the stigma (the female receptive organ where pollen is deposited by a visiting pollinator). 

    Fruit : The fruit is an oblong pod, 5-13 cm long and bears up to 5 seeds. The seeds are kidney-shaped to subglobose (almost spherical), up to 11 mm long, white, green, yellow, brown, red, purple, black or variously speckled. 

    Uses Food

    In Africa, lima bean is grown mainly for its immature and dry seeds which are eaten boiled, fried or baked. In Nigeria, the seeds are commonly used in soups and stews, cooked together with maize, rice or yams. Some indigenous peoples, such as the Yoruba, process the seeds into porridge, puddings and cakes. The green, immature seeds, pods and leaves are eaten as a vegetable in Ghana and Malawi. Lima beans are cultivated on an industrial scale in the United States for canning and freezing. In many Asian countries the shoots and young plants are cooked and eaten. The leaves and stems of butter bean may be turned into hay or silage.


    The plant has many medicinal uses. In Senegal and the Democratic republic of Congo the juice from the leaves is used in nasal instillations against headache and as eardrops. In Nigeria the seeds are pulverised and rubbed into small cuts or onto tumours and abscesses to encourage the discharge of pus. The seeds and leaves of butter bean are valued in traditional Asian medicine for their astringent properties and they are used as a diet to relieve fever.

    Other uses

    The seeds of lima bean are sometimes used to feed livestock, but there is a risk of hydrogen cyanide poisoning if used raw. The ability of lima bean to fix nitrogen from the air by way of bacteria housed in root nodules makes it a good soil fertiliser. For this reason it is often grown as a  cover crop and for green manure.

    Crop wild relatives of lima bean

    The Millennium Seed Bank and the Global Crop Diversity Trust are engaged in a ten-year project, called 'Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change'. The project aims to protect, collect and prepare the wild relatives of 29 key food crops, including lima bean, so that they are available to pre-breeders for the development of new varieties that are more resilient to the effects of climate change.

    Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

    The  Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plants worldwide, focusing on those plants which are under threat and those which are of most use in the future. Once seeds have been collected they are dried, packaged and stored at -20°C in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank vault.

    Description of seeds:  Average weight of 1,000 seeds = 571.0 g

    Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank:  One

    Seed storage behaviour:  Orthodox (the seeds of this plant can be dried to a low moisture content without significantly reducing their viability. This means they are suitable for long-term frozen storage)

    Germination testing:  Successful

    This species at Kew

    Pressed and dried specimens of Phaseolus lunatus  are held in Kew's Herbarium, where they are available to researchers by appointment. Details and images of some of these specimens can be seen online in Kew's Herbarium Catalogue.

    Lima bean can be grown in a wide range of ecological conditions but is particularly suited to low-altitude humid and sub-humid climates,as well as warm temperate zones and arid and semi-arid tropical regions.
    Widespread in cultivation.

    Lima beans contain high levels of a cyanide compound and should not be eaten raw. The toxic cyanide compound is deactivated upon cooking.

    Food, fodder, medicine, cover crop.



    Found In:

    Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexican Pacific Is., Mexico Central, Mexico Gulf, Mexico Northeast, Mexico Northwest, Mexico Southeast, Mexico Southwest, Nicaragua, Panamá

    Introduced Into:

    Andaman Is., Angola, Argentina Northeast, Argentina Northwest, Assam, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Benin, Bismarck Archipelago, Brazil South, Brazil Southeast, Brazil West-Central, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Repu, China North-Central, China Southeast, Christmas I., Cuba, Dominican Republic, East Himalaya, Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Fiji, French Guiana, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Gulf of Guinea Is., Guyana, Hainan, Haiti, India, Ivory Coast, Jamaica, Jawa, Kazan-retto, Kenya, Kermadec Is., Leeward Is., Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaya, Maldives, Mali, Mauritius, Nepal, New Caledonia, New Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Ogasawara-shoto, Pakistan, Peru, Puerto Rico, Queensland, Rodrigues, Rwanda, Réunion, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Southwest Caribbean, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Tanzania, Thailand, Togo, Trinidad-Tobago, Uganda, Venezuela, Venezuelan Antilles, Vietnam, West Himalaya, Windward Is., Zambia, Zaïre, Zimbabwe

    Common Names

    Lima bean

    Phaseolus lunatus L. appears in other Kew resources:

    Date Identified Reference Herbarium Specimen Type Status
    May 1, 2012 I Made Maduarta (Pung) [IMM 170], Lesser Sunda Is. K000733729
    Jan 1, 2007 Rovirosa, J.N. [422], Oaxaca K000478457
    Langlassé, E. [204], Mexico K001041084
    González Ortega, J. [5429], Mexico K001041085
    Gaumer, G. [564], Mexico K001041093
    Sinclair [s.n.], Mexico K001041096
    Seeman [s.n.], Panama K001041097
    Coulter [s.n.], Mexico K001041098
    Hayes [549], Panama K001041099
    Burchell [3444], Brazil K000931234
    Legname, P.R. [7021C], Argentina K000931235
    s.coll. [970], Brazil K000931236
    Usteri [54=211], Brazil K000931237
    Smith, H.H. [2053], Colombia K000502930
    Smith, H.H. [692], Colombia K000502931
    Fendler, A. [260], Venezuela K000502932
    s.coll. [260], Venezuela K000502933
    Spruce, R. [s.n.], Para K000502934
    McFadyen [s.n.], Jamaica K000502935
    McFadyen [s.n.], Jamaica K000502936
    Hinton, G.B. [11771], Mexico K000118657
    Hinton, G.B. [11742], Mexico K000118658
    Hinton, G.B. [11742], Mexico K000118659
    Hinton, G.B. [5383], Mexico K000118660
    Hinton, G.B. [3100], Mexico K000118661
    Hinton, G.B. [5439], Mexico K000118662
    Hinton, G.B. [5439], Mexico K000118663
    Hinton, G.B. [3121], Mexico K000118664
    Langlassé, E. [958], Mexico K001041078
    Gaumer, G. [564], Mexico K001041079
    Gaumer, G. [564], Mexico K001041080
    Gaumer, G. [564], Mexico K001041081

    First published in Sp. Pl.: 724 (1753)

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