Rio History: Sea Beans of Padre Island

Special to the PRESS

There are quite a variety of sea beans, or drift seeds, to be found on South Padre’s shores. In fact, Padre Island is considered the best sea bean collecting beach along the entire Gulf Coast region. Most of them come from trees and vines that grow along tropical shores and rain forests around the world. The richest deposits usually begin in late March and continue into the early summer months.

The seeds most commonly found on our beaches, Sea Hearts, are carried here by the Caribbean currents. They are most often found along the beaches of Mexico, the Gulf Coast of Texas and the western beaches of Florida.

A high climbing, woody, tropical vine from the Caribbean called the escalera, or monkey ladder, produces seed clusters in long twisted fruit pods that can grow up to seven feet in length.

Each pod contains 10-15 seeds enclosed in individual compartments. These pods are too fragile to survive a long trip across water, but the seeds themselves have an extremely hard outer shell capable of maintaining buoyancy for up to two years.

The vine, stretching from tree to tree, grows hundreds of feet above the jungle floor. Mature main stems, either flattened and ribbon-like or sinewy and spiraling, can measure more than a foot in diameter. Even the smallest stem is remarkably strong.

It’s called the monkey ladder because it provides a sinewy vine highway through the canopy of the rain forest. Every year, the torrential rainy seasons flush millions of the heart-shaped beans down rivers and out to sea.

Usually about a year will pass before the bean is caught off the Yucatan Peninsula coast by the Caribbean Current, swept into the Gulf of Mexico and deposited on the shores of sunny South Padre Island. A multitude of its brethren, still caught in a mighty current, will continue their ancestral journey through the Straits of Florida before being drawn into the Atlantic. Where they float from there, is decided by prevailing winds and currents.

Collecting sea beans can be a fun and interesting hobby. One of the best times to search for beans is during a rising tide, near its full stage. Walk along the tide line, right at the edge. Most freshly stranded beans are openly exposed regardless of seaweed that sometimes washes on to shore. Also watch for any wash-out areas. Following these areas back to the base of dunes will sometimes provide a multitude of beans that have previously been washed in.

Yes, you can plant them, but keeping them alive in a cooler climate is a challenge. To germinate them, crack the hard outer shell, then put the beans in a dish of shallow, fresh water and place in a sunny spot. (You might want to consider planting several beans to increase the odds of germination).

Change the water daily until you see a sprout. This usually will take about a week to 10 days, but the time needed varies with each specimen. When sprouts appear, plant each bean in potting soil and give them plenty of water and sunlight. In the cool months, bring plants indoors and keep them away from cold drafts.

Early naturalists thought the Sea Hearts came from mysterious underwater plants whose origin was shrouded in legend and myth. It was not until 1889, when Prince Albert (who had yet to be trapped in the little can) began his famous experiments with float and bottle tests, that modern man realized how much ocean currents affect weather, commerce and the development of civilization itself. The Gulf Stream was shown to bring warm water to the Atlantic and to warm the coasts of England and Ireland both.

Christopher Columbus was fascinated with objects that drifted ashore in the Azores off the coast of Portugal. It has been said that the Sea Heart inspired his explorations to the west. Ground seeds were prescribed for an amazing number of maladies including constipation and snake bites, as well as a contraceptive. In some Far Eastern countries, it was reputedly used as an aphrodisiac.

In Norway, a bitter tea was brewed from the embryos of Sea Hearts to alleviate the pain of child birth. Snuff boxes and pendants were made from the hard outer shell of the bean. In England, beans carried by the North Atlantic Current, were given as teething rings to babies in hopes they would be given a protection, of sorts, if they took up a life with the sea. Necklaces are still made from them in the Caribbean, while beans found in Mexico, are often polished in rock tumblers before being painted and sold as souvenirs.

For more refer to Kay Lay’s Book, “Don’t Pass the Beans, the Sea Beans of South Padre Island,” available at Paragraphs Bookstore, 5505 Padre Blvd. on South Padre Island.

Want the whole story? Pick up a copy of the Port Isabel-South Padre Press, or subscribe to our E-Edition by clicking here.

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