Are there really such things called ‘sea beans’?

April 2005

Yes, sea beans are seeds from plants. Many have often drifted thousands of miles.

The round, brown bean is a sea heart, produced by a vine in the forests of Costa Rica. The elongated bean remains a mystery.

Sea beans come in a variety of sizes and shapes, but they have one thing in common: the ability to travel long distances in seawater. These exotic travelers can drift for decades and cover thousands of miles before washing up on a beach.

As the name suggests, the bean family supplies a sizeable number of these oddities, but so do mangroves, palms, mangos, calabashes, tropical almonds and other plants. Some plants produce seeds so well protected that under suitable conditions they can germinate after an ocean voyage of months or years. The common coconut is considered a type of sea bean because it is often sighted hundreds of miles from land.

Most sea beans originate in the tropics, where they fall into rivers, estuaries and coastal waters. Pushed along by wind and currents, they can stay afloat for as long as 30 years. The Gulf Stream brings these drifting seeds to south Florida, and occasionally deposits them as far north as Cape Cod and the British Isles and Norway.

Beachcombers have long had a special affinity for sea beans, and early Europeans believed the beans came from underwater forests. Some believed they had magical powers and could cure illnesses.

The most frequently found sea beans are sea heart, true sea bean, sea purse and gray nickernut. Perhaps the most precious sea bean is Mary’s bean, also known as the crucifixion bean because of its distinctive cross-stamped surface. Mary’s bean has a rich history and is mentioned in early accounts from Ireland, the Hebrides, the Orkneys and Shetland Islands. In Hebrides, a woman in labor was assured an easy delivery if she clenched a seed in her hand. The seeds were handed down from mother to daughter as treasured keepsakes.

There’s also the hamburger bean, which looks like its namesake in miniature, the country almond, the golf ball, the hand grenade, the hog plum, the porcupine seed and others. Beans that have turned up on North Carolina beaches include the hamburger bean, sea purse, sea heart and Mary’s bean.

Most sea beans are brown and easily overlooked, especially in beach wrack. And, unlike sea shells, they’re not common finds. Even avid beachcombers may collect only one or two each year. Although Southeastern Florida is the hotspot for discovering these ocean voyagers, the beans turn up as far north as Cape Cod, however, they become increasingly rare north of Cape Hatteras.

Along the North Carolina coast, beans can turn up on northernmost and southernmost beaches, but Cape Lookout is reputed to be potentially the best hunting grounds because of its close proximity to the Gulf Stream.