Sea Hearts and Matchbox Beans
Above from top: Entada gigas, Entada rheedii and Entada phaseoloides
Beans from the Monkey Ladder Vine (Entada sp.)
are known as Sea Hearts of the Ocean. Found throughout wet lowland forests of the tropics, the vines drape over tree tops, providing thoroughfares for monkeys, lizards and snakes in the rainforest canopy. Sea hearts are produced in huge, hanging bean pods, up to six feet long. Sometimes they are found with imprints and lacerations, caused by the teeth of fish and island mammals during their voyage. They are impervious to salt water, even after floating in the ocean for several years.
These beans have been fashioned into all sorts of trinkets and useful objects. Sailors carried sea hearts as good luck charms to protect them from sickness and to ward off the evil eye. Seeds were sometimes cut in half, the contents removed and the woody seed coats hinged together. Hollowed out seeds were commonly used in Norway and Northern Europe for snuff boxes, match boxes and lockets. Click here to see a toy made from sea hearts. The hard seeds take a high polish, sometimes displaying the initials of the owner. It is said that a sea heart (also known as fava de Colom) inspired Christopher Columbus to set out in search of lands to the west.
Sea Hearts are carried by Caribbean currents to the Gulf of Mexico and the beaches of Florida. Off the east coast of the United States, they ride the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic currents to Northern Europe. Matchbox beans (Entada phaseoloides and Entada rheedii), native to Queensland, Australia are commonly found on northern and eastern shorelines.
Above: Entada rheedii seed pod
Sea Purses – Everybody's Favorite
Sea purses come in many colors, patterns and shapes
Coveted by collectors, Sea Purses and Saddle Beans (Dioclea sp.)
are one of the rarest and most colorful of all sea beans found on the beaches of Florida and Australia. The circular hilum along the edge resembles a zipper, giving it the name Sea Purse. If the seed is held with the hilum pointed downward the bean looks like an English riding saddle, hence the name, Saddle Bean. They have thick, protective shells which are impervious to salt water, enabling them to survive for years at sea. At least three distinct color variations exist: a beautiful orange with black flecking; a swirled mocha orange with no flecks; and the extremely rare solid black variety.
This bean was originally grown in Asia, but has drifted to islands in the Caribbean and Central and South America, reproducing there. The beans fall from the parent vine, into streams and rivers to drift with the ocean's currents until being washed onto a shore thousands of miles from where they once grew. They are found growing on the Hawaiian Islands where they may have also drifted or, like so many other species, introduced by people. In tropical Australia, native Saddle Beans are flatter and more wrinkled than the fat Sea Purses found in Florida.
Hamburgers - the True Sea-Bean
From top: Mucuna urens (red), Mucuna urens (brindle) and Mucuna sloanei (brown)
Seeds from the Mucuna
vine are called Hamburger Beans or True Sea-Beans in the United States. In Mexico, they are known as Ojo de Venado or Deer’s Eye. They can be brown, red or brindle shades of red and brown. These beans are members of the pea and bean family that contain toxic, hallucinogenic or medicinal alkaloids and therefore figure in good luck charms. In the case of the Mucuna bean, the mature beans are considered both aphrodisiac and very protective in Mexico and Central America against the evil eye. Nowadays they are not eaten, merely carried for good luck, but they do contain dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and related alkaloids, as well as L-dopa, a precursor of the natural transmitter dopamine.
Above: Mucuna sloanei seed pod
Native to Africa, Central and South America, Mucuna beans distribute themselves by floating in water. Washed out of the rainforest by deluges and hurricanes, these seeds are carried to the ocean by streams and rivers. In Florida, September and October are typically the most bountiful times to find Mucuna beans. Tides leave the beans on shore along with seaweed, driftwood, tar, trash, and toys. Ocean currents, connected to each other in a huge global transit system, carry beans from current to current – so, a seed from Jamaica could travel to Florida, then to New Jersey, and then across the Atlantic to the United Kingdom.
Australia's Bountiful Burny Beans
Burny beans, also known as Velvet beans, are better known by the scientific name of Mucuna gigantea.
They drop from a rampant, fast-growing vine found in monsoon forests, open forests and woodlands, riverine, littoral, subtropical and tropical rainforests. Ours are collected from the beaches of Far Northern Queensland, Australia. They can also be found throughout Asia.
has pale green flowers in spring and summer. The fruit is a brown, thick pod containing 4 black seeds. Brindle red and black or brown seeds can also be found, but are not nearly as common as the black. This vine is a useful screening plant and readily attracts butterflies. The seed germinates quickly by nicking the hard outer coat.
In Australia, powdered bark from the vine is mixed with dry ginger and used for rheumatic complaints by rubbing it over the affected areas. The seed was once eaten by Aborigines after preparation.
Most Burny Beans found are jet black. Brindle patterns, reds and shades of brown are more rare.
The Elusive Mary’s Bean
Statistically, only one out of every 200 sea-beans you find will be a Mary’s Bean.
One of the most remarkable sea-beans is the Mary’s bean (Merremia discoidesperma)
. In addition to its unique appearance, it holds the record for the longest recorded drift: 15,000 miles.
It comes from a little-known beach vine in the morning-glory family (Convolvulaceae)
growing in a small area of Central America, parts of Mexico, Guatemala and Hispanola. Named after the Virgin Mary, it is also called the crucifixion bean because of a cross etched on one side of the seed. This scarcity, combined with the cross, led to it being used as a talisman and many superstitions and legends are connected with it.
Historically, people have used Mary’s beans as good luck charms and to ward off evil spirits. A woman in labor was assured an easy delivery if she clenched a Mary’s bean in her hand, and the seeds were handed down from mother to daughter as treasured keepsakes. They have also been used as an antidote for snake bites in Nicaragua and as a cure for hemorrhoids in Mexico. The hemorrhoidal treatment requires the sufferer to carry a “male” and a “female” seed in their back pocket. Apparently the sex of a seed is determined by whether they float or sink in water. Those that sink in water are called “hembras” (female) and those that float are “macho” (male). Mary’s beans are sometimes sold by street vendors in Mexico as Marine Tomatoes and are known for their curative properties.
The Mary’s bean is a rare find among drift material anywhere in the world and highly prized by drift seed collectors. In northern Europe the Mary’s bean was a special find to pious beach-combers. The seed had obviously survived the ocean and they felt it would extend its protection to anyone lucky enough to own one.
Nickarbeans and Sea Pearls
Nickarbeans can be found in three different colors.
The sea pearl, nickernut or eaglestone (Caesalpinia sp.)
has long been a sea-bean of scientific discussion. They are actually from the bean family and are not nuts. Worldwide, there are about 100 species, all found in tropical and subtropical regions. In 70AD, the Roman historian, Pliny the Elder, described these beans as being round, grey and hollow, and if you shook them, they rattled. He claims eagles placed them in their nests to effect many cures. Truth be told, birds of prey, as well as storks, are known to place extraneous objects in their nests.
Above: Yellow Nickarbean pod
Pliny goes on to say that the “eaglestones” are found in pairs; one male, the other female and without a pair the eagle cannot produce young. He advised pregnant women to keep an “eaglestone” with them to prevent miscarriage. By the 17th century, nickernuts were sold as “eaglestones” to pregnant women in the British Isles and Scandinavia to wear either above or below their navel to help in delivery.
Sea pearls or nickernuts found on east coast beaches of Florida may have washed in from the Gulf Stream or are from plants growing locally. From a sprawling vinelike shrub covered with short, recurved spines, nickernuts could be from beaches from central Florida southward or from the Caribbean region. The beans emerge from plump, spiny pods that open in the summer heat. The name nicker comes from the Old English word “nickar,” meaning marble. Nickernuts are used the world over in various board games as playing pieces and in India the nuts are valued in medicine.
Bay Beans, International Travelers
Bay Beans can be found in many different shades of reds and browns.
Bay beans (Canavalia rosea)
are one of the most common and plentiful of all sea-beans because they grow abundantly in dunes worldwide. The vines and their pods grow low along the sand and are easy to spot on the berm with long flower-studded runners. These vines protect the dunes by stabilizing the sand along with other plants such as sea lavenders, bay cedar, scrub briers, sandspurs, salt-bushes, golden creepers, beach elders, lantana and sea oxeyes, to name a few. The plants grow on beaches on both coasts of Florida and from the Gulf of Mexico, southward to the American Tropics. The bay bean has pealike flowers about 6cm long.
The seed pods are thick and leathery, 8 to 10 cm long, 2 cm wide, with a narrow raised ridge on both sides. They remain green until the summer sun dries them out, and then crack open and release five to seven hard beans. The coloration of the beans vary from mottled and swirly browns to different shades of beige.
Bay beans blend in so well with other drift on the beach that they are easily overlooked. They have an excellent floating capacity - 15 years under test conditions - appearing on beaches the world over that are reached by currents from the Tropics.
Starnut, Prickly and Oil Palm Seeds
The seeds and hard, stony endocarps of several tropical palms are found in abundance on Florida, Texas and Bahama beaches. They all take a high polish and are often used for necklaces in tropical countries.
Left three: Starnut Palms / Middle one: Prickly Palm / Right three: Oil Palms
One of the most striking is the starnut palm (Astrocaryum huicungo),
so named because the seed-bearing endocarps have etched, starlike designs around the three pores at the rounded end. Starnut palms (photo right - top three seeds)
are identifiable in the dense rain forest by their long, sharp spines - up to five inches long. Sometimes called Widow's Tears they can be confused with African Oil Palm seeds (photo left - bottom three seeds) which are not generally as pointed on one end as Starnuts, but also polish beautifully.
Prickly Palms (photo left - center one seed)
are closely related to the Starnut Palm with three equally distant pores along their sides or at their bases. Palms having these pores are called cocoid palms. Prickly Palms grow in northern South America and the West Indies. The trees bear prickly spines and the wood is very hard and black, with the common name Black Palm or Corozo Palm. There are several species of this palm. Buoyancy is provide by air inside the seed resulting in the potential for floating 15 years or more. They have been found extensively in the Bahamas, Florida east coasts and the Texas Gulf Coast, and occasionally on European beaches where they are classified as Acrocomia mexicana
. Prickly Palm seeds polish to a high sheen with a smooth finish.
The Vibrant Royal Poinciana
This tree's vivid red/vermilion/orange/yellow flowers and bright green foliage make it an exceptionally striking sight.
The Royal Poinciana (Delonix regia)
or Flamboyan tree is consistently voted among the top five most beautiful flowering trees in the world. Related to the Tamarind and mimosa tree, this native of Madagascar is a tropical legume having bipinnately compound leaves, clusters of large scarlet flowers, and long pods measuring up to 2 feet long (60 cm). It is the official tree of Puerto Rico.
In early summer, bright red and orange blossoms appear and hang on for 4-8 weeks. The older the tree, the more intensely it blooms. The Poinciana grows to 40 feet. In hot months, its fine leaves provide a wonderful "broken" shade, providing shifting light and protection from the hot summer sun making them a favorite for back yards in South Florida.
In the Caribbean, the pods are used for fuel and called "woman's tongue" for the rattling noise they make when the wind blows them. The empty pods are classified as sea-beans but only have a maximum flotation of about a month. The seeds are gathered from pods and fashioned into jewelry around the world. Miami is blessed with boulevards lined with these trees.
Costa Rica's National Tree - Guanacaste
Guanacaste seeds are very hard - resembling small stones rather than tree seeds in their strength and durability.
One of the most beautiful beans of the New World tropics comes from the Guanacaste (Enterolobium cyclocarpum)
, a huge canopy tree of the rain forest. It is a fast growing species and one of the largest trees found in Central America. It can reach a total height of over 130 feet and attain a trunk diameter in excess of 6 feet. This beautiful tree with fernlike twice-pinnate leaves is also naturalized in southern Baja California, the Hawaiian Islands and Australia. Guanacastes may shelter a large population of epiphytes (aerial plants) among its branches.
The word Guanacaste, which is also the name of the Costa Rican province of Guanacaste, is of Nahuatl origin and means "ear tree." The coiled, leathery pods resemble the shape of a human ear. The nutritious pods are used for stock feed and the bark and wood are used for tanning and lumber. One of the most interesting uses involves the hard, woody seeds which litter the ground beneath large trees. Guanacaste seeds have a distinctive brown "eye" and make some of the most striking seed jewelry. To brighten up your seeds, lightly rub with mineral oil on a soft cloth and buff to a shine.
Raffia Palm Seeds
The brach of the palm produces pine cone-like seeds, which when opened, contain a veined nut.
Raffia Palm (Raphia taedigera)
grows abundantly in Central and South America. The huge tree thrives in poorly drained, swamp-forest habitats, resulting in the common name of "swamp palm". Pneumatophores supply air to the tree as most of its root system lies below water. Cypress and mangrove also survive swamp life in this manner. Its leaves are long and arching up to 30' in length making them popular for roof thatch.
The tree has other names such as Silico and Matomba in Panama, Yolillo in Costa Rica, Pángana in Colombia and Jupatí in Brazil. While the seeds are rarely found on beaches in the US, they are readily found on their native beaches, close to the mouths of rivers and estuaries where they strand after being washed out of the swamps by torrential rains.
The seeds from the Raffia palm look like pine cones and the nut inside rattles around when shaken. When the outer covering is removed, a seed with a woody coating is exposed. After this coating is stripped off, a white seed with brown veining is found. These seeds grow up to 3” long and are easily sliced, carved, milled and polished by local artisans - much like another popular palm, the tagua nut.
Research of this palm has found that it has been in thriving in swamps in Caribbean Nicaragua for the past 2800 years, establishing its as a pre-Columbian species in Central America.
No varnish or lacquer is sprayed on our sea-beans. The smooth, shiny finish is acquired through many months of grinding, tumbling and polishing using industrial equipment.