Rio History: Sea-beans

Grey nickernuts.

By Steve Hathcock 

Although sea-beans have been washing onto beaches for tens of thousands of years, most beachcombers are unaware of their origins.  Most true sea-beans (numerous varieties of beans with hard outer shells that are long distance drifters) found on Padre Island come from the tropical forests of southern Mexico and Central and South America.  The majority grow in pods on vines or low sprawling shrubs.  Rainforests and lush riverbanks are their natural homes.  Carried down freshwater streams and rivers during rainy seasons the beans are washed into the Atlantic Ocean.  Usually about a year will pass before the bean is caught off the Yucatan 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.

Brown nickernut.

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.

Three of the more commonly found beans on South Padre Island are easily identified.  The ‘sea-heart’, which grows profusely in Costa Rica, is dark brown in color and often grows in the shape of a heart.  Another, commonly called the ‘hamburger bean’, looks just like a miniature hamburger.  These are most often reddish or grayish brown with a wide black band that encircles most of the bean. But one of my favorite beans is the nickernut. Because the beans are produced in 2 colors (yellow or grey) they are known as either “yellow nickers” or “grey nickers.” The word itself is a derivative of the Dutch word “nikker” meaning clay marble. In the Caribbean nickers are used in mancala, which is one of the oldest known board games.  

Mancala, which is still widely popular, is played with small stones, beans, or seeds and rows of holes or pits in the earth, on a board or other playing surface. The objective is usually to capture all, or some set of the opponent’s pieces. Versions of the game date back to the 7th century BC and there is some evidence suggesting ancient Egyptians had their own such game. 

In addition to games, sea-beans can also be used in jewelry making and for medical purposes. 

Many of the sea-beans that reach our beaches are still viable. In her book “Don’t Pass the Beans” local author Kay Lay talks about her experience growing them for our Beachcomber’s Museum that was once situated within our bookstore coffee pub.  

“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” she wrote. “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.”

She must have known what she was talking about because our windows and shelves were adorned with wandering vines. 

If you have a bean you would like identified or would like information on how to get Kay Lay’s book email

Happy beachcombing!

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