Hongli, the Scarlet Emperor Bean

I have a pet bean — actually, I have two now, Hongli and Song Jiang. How this happened? Well, a few weeks ago I decided it was time to start plants in the house, you know, tomato and basil. I had a packet of seeds — beans — unopened from a little shopping trip I took with a friend when she came to visit three years ago at the end of summer. We ate our green chili smothered enchiladas at Ninos, then wandered around downtown Monte Vista which is mostly empty storefronts. BUT among those empty storefronts is an awesome mom and pop hardware store. My friend is a professional gardener, so she was drawn to the seed rack. I saw these beans. They have red flowers and a wonderful name, Scarlet Emperor Beans. I bought them thinking I would grow them along the front fence.

I put them away and forgot about them for two years. But this spring, I opened the packet and jabbed a few of these giant and beautiful beans into little seed starter things.



Close to actual size!


I forgot important information such as “Jack and the Beanstalk.”

Most of them didn’t sprout but ONE did. Over night that thing was four inches tall. I got a pot, I planted it, it sang rapturous songs in gratitude. I named it Hongli, the original name of the first Manchu Emperor known as Chien Lung. The sound “hong” in Chinese has many meanings but one of them is “red.” “Li” usually means “bright.”

Hongli began his life and his adventures, taking the sun in various spots in my yard. I have had a good time following his imperial journeys (and sometimes posting them on Facebook where he has garnered three or four diehard fans). He especially enjoys mornings spent in the Garden of the Undaunted Violas.

Meanwhile, another one sprouted,and I had to name him. I decided that he should have the name of a different kind of hero. One of my favorite works of fiction is The Water Margin known as The Men of the Marshes or All Men Are Brothers. It’s a late 16th century Chinese Novel that’s (weirdly) often compared to Robin Hood. The central characters are 108 semi-supernatural outlaws. It’s a lot of fun to read especially if you like tigers and cannibalism. 🙂 The hero of that story is Song Jiang who is everything you’d want in a heroic bean.



Hongli and Song Jiang in the Sunny Garden of the Resolute Violas


The two now hold audiences together in various parts of my yard (we call it garden). One of Song Jiang’s first outdoor excursions was to the Quiet Courtyard of the Serene Leper Bells.



Leper Bell


It appears that through the Scarlet Emperor Bean “grapevine” the word went down that this is a good place because a THIRD sprouted. He had a hard struggle to make his way into the light, but he succeeded. I was out of pots so he has gone directly into the ground (raised bed). His name is Li Ho because every Chinese court needs a poet.



Li Ho stationed on the frontier


This probably seems like a very elaborate life for a bunch of beans, but it’s been a cheerful distraction for me as I wait for hip surgery. This morning Hongli made his wishes known so I am building him a trellis.



30 thoughts on “Hongli, the Scarlet Emperor Bean

  1. I love that you named your beans—and so exotically so. My plants are bereft of such sentimentality. I wish there to be no hesitation when it comes time to eat them.

    • Ha ha ha! Hongli has assured me that he understands his purpose in life is to feed me and prepare for future generations. He’s a Chinese bean after all (not really, I think they came from England, but…) I didn’t expect them to grow, that’s the cool thing.

  2. Beans with an elaborate front and back story–what fun! Love your garden bed names, too.

    As you are very likely aware, beans aren’t frost tolerant, so protection important and perhaps a bean-sitter while you are away. (or just inside)

  3. These are what we called runner beans in England and were the only beans my mum ever cooked. They were so big that she would cut them in strips when cooking. I used to grow something similar on special poles, but they were the Swiss “Landfrauen” beans which were also very good. I think I might start naming my apples when they arrive. Perhaps some Swiss names like Fridolin, Hans or even Alexander after my grandson.

    • Yeah, my neighbor planted some last year and called them “red runner beans.” I just turned him into a pet since he grew and I didn’t expect him to. I’m pretty fond of him, though. You could name your apple trees. 🙂

  4. Wait! I think your beans have more interesting lives than I do, Martha! I started another painting project as a distraction too. It helps.

    • My beans have more interesting lives than do most people! Painting is good. It’s not just escape. It’s also a transcendental experience. Enjoy!!! ❤

    • I love the leper bells. My first novel is about a leper and in my research I learned that the name came from the myth (medieval myth) that this fritilaria came where lepers had walked. Snakes head makes perfect sense, too.

  5. Love the beans’ enthusiasm — what a great metaphor for the regeneration you will feel after your surgery!

  6. A serene leper bell is a quaint name. Are leper’s serene? I have a couple of packets of seeds and I hope that next week, I will plant them. Of course by then we will move from the wet part of spring to the dryness of summer and I will have to figure out how to water them since we no longer have a faucet on the garden side of the house, but I have the hose … just have to work out the complexity of the issue 😀

  7. I love that you care enough to name your bean plants. We may have to incorporate this practice into our family gardening. As I sit and write this, my kids are clearing the vegetable garden out in preparation for planting. It’s still too cold to plant beans outside here, but we may start one or two indoors, and I’ll think of Hongli and Song Jiang when and if they sprout. 🙂 I look forward to seeing the red flowers when they do bloom. We planted a scarlet runner bean last year and the humming birds absolutely love the dainty red flowers. I hope you have some tiny visitors to your flowers too! Lovely post, Martha!

    • Thank you! I wouldn’t have named Hongli (and his pals), but there he was, doomed to be a house bean for at least another month. And, I found I was very fond of him and related to him somehow. I enjoyed your post about your trip — I tried commenting, but it wouldn’t post. I really loved the photo of the pelican — beautiful!

      • Thank you, Martha! I wonder why it wouldn’t post. Sometimes I have that problem on blogs I comment on too. I’ll have to look that one up to see if I can find a reason. Thanks for reading though!

  8. This is exciting! I guess word got out that your place was a great place to be. Sprout, beans! Sprout! I love Hongli attaching to our lampshade. Let there be light….

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