We’ve been growing velvet beans (Mucuna pruriens var. utilis) since our old food forest back in Florida; however, I didn’t come in contact with the “madness bean” version – the wild, brutally stinging type of Mucuna pruriens – until we lived on the island of Grenada.
The wild form is also known as “cowitch,” and will drive you mad.
Our Encounter with Madness Beans
Derek Clawson’s comment the other day reminded me of my experience with the “madness bean.”
“I did grow the itchy type once … Never ever do that if you haven’t! It produced buckets of pods but the fibers were almost impossible not to get all over you. It was a nightmare cleaning up that vine from a fence. It itches so badly for 30 plus mins you’ll itch your skin off trying to satisfy the irritation. Absolute hell. When some guy had originally sent the seeds he warned me I’d never grow it again but I thought it couldn’t be that bad. It’s that bad and I never grew it again.”
Back in 2017 I was told by my friend Mike who lived up the road on the island that there was a patch of stinging beans in one of the fields at a lower altitude, so I hiked down there to get some:
I thought we could use them medicinally, like we had done with our cultivated varieties in the past.
Yet after filming that video, my arms itched and stung for more than a day, and that was just from the little hairs that drifted off the pods I harvested! We never did do anything with those pods. I didn’t want to touch them again, even with gloves.
The pain was tormenting, and nothing seems to take that sting out.
Cultivated vs. Wild Mucuna pruriens
The cultivated form of the madness bean (Mucuna pruriens var. utilis) is still medicinal, as well as being an excellent cover crop and nitrogen fixer, and it lacks almost all of the stinging hairs. The pods will sometimes make you a little itchy, but it’s nothing like the torment of its uncultivated relations.
This spring I plan to plant a large section of the cultivated variety of velvet beans so we can harvest seed and perhaps offer it for sale. It’s hard to find in the US, and is expensive when you can find it. We’ll use it as a suppressive ground cover in the food forest to build the soil and kill off the grass while adding nitrogen, then see how much seed we end up with.
Grow the right type and it’s a very useful plant. Grow the wild type and it’s a devil. The only place I would ever deliberately plant the wild stinging form is at the edge of a property to deter trespassers. Otherwise, it’s just too dangerous.