Are there really such things
called “sea beans”?
Yes, sea beans are seeds from plants
that have often drifted thousands of miles.
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 sea bean, as it is often
sighted hundreds of miles from land.
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.
The round, brown bean is a sea heart, produced
by a vine in the forests of Costa Rica. The elongated
bean remains a mystery.
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.