Difference Between Green Beans, String Beans and Runner Beans?

Robert Pavlis

What is the difference between green beans, string beans, pole beans and runner beans? I sort of know which is which, but when I tried to define the terms, things got very confusing. We use a lot of different terms for beans.

After a little research things got even more confusing since there are also French beans, snap beans and snaps. And what about those yellow wax beans. Are soybeans real beans?

This post is full of beans!

Difference Between Green Beans, String Beans and Runner beans?
Difference Between Green Beans, String Beans and Runner beans? From left to right, pinto beans, navy beans, kidney beans, source:  Marco Verch 

Bush Beans vs Pole Beans

All beans can be grouped into one of two categories depending on how they grow.

Bush beans are plants that are usually under 2 ft tall. All of the flowers develop at more or less the same time and so do the beans, which makes them suitable for mechanical harvest. They are easier to grow since they don’t need staking, and they tend to produce beans earlier than pole beans.

Pole beans, which are also called vine beans and climbing beans, grow much taller and are usually grown on some kind of trellis. They start flowering later in the season and tend to produce fruit (scientifically, beans are fruits) until frost.

Plant Science for Gardeners by Robert Pavlis

Some people incorrectly use the term pole bean to only refer to vining green beans and not other climbing beans, but that just confuses things.

Snap Bean vs Dry Bean

Beans can be eaten in the young, green pod stage, called snap beans, or in the mature dry stage called dry beans.

These terms can be used to describe any variety or species of bean.

Twining in Beans

When vines grow up a pole they twine either in a clockwise direction or an anti-clockwise direction. It is good to know their twining direction so you can help them climb. To find out what beans do, see, Twining Direction in Beans – are Scarlet Runner Beans Different?

Species of Beans

We grow various species of beans. It is not important to remember the botanical names, but it does help to sort out the various common names that are used.

Phaseolus vulgaris

This is the bean that is most commonly sold in North American grocery stores, and is known by several common names including, common bean, French bean, green bean, string bean, snap bean and snaps, not to be confused with sugar snap peas. In French restaurants they are called haricots vert. It is available in both bush and pole varieties.

The term string bean refers to older cultivars that develop a tough string along the joined edge as they get older. Newer cultivars have been bred to reduce  this string, and are called stringless beans.

Wax bean is a yellow form of the green bean.

Purple bean is a purple form of the green bean. The bean turns green when it is cooked.

Kidney bean, or red kidney bean is usually eaten dry, has a dark red color and is a type of green bean.

Navy bean, also called haricot, pearl haricot, boston, white pea and pea bean, are white in color and are eaten dry. They are available in bush and vine types and are a form of the green been. In fact the dry seed of most green beans is white.

Pinto bean is another type of green bean that produces dry beans that are tan in color, with darker spots. It is used a lot in Mexican dishes. It is also eaten as tender green pods.

Phaseolus coccineus

Runner beans
Runner beans

This species of bean is know as the runner bean, scarlet runner bean, multiflora bean or butter bean. The term butter bean is also used for the lima bean.

This bean develops flat green pods and has a very different flavor than the green bean. Its flowers can be red, hence the name scarlet runner bean, or white and is grown as an ornamental plant. They are usually pole beans.

Phaseolus lunatus

Is grown mostly for the dry beans and is called lima bean, butter bean, sieva bean or Madagascar bean. Both bush and pole cultivars exist.

Vicia faba

This is a bush bean which can be taller than two feet, and is grown both for food and as a cover crop. Common names include broad bean, fava bean, faba bean, bell bean, field bean, tic bean, or horse bean.

Vigna unguiculata subspsesquipedalis

Vigna unguiculata subsp. sesquipedalis, the yardlong bean
Vigna unguiculata subsp. sesquipedalis, the yardlong bean

This bean is also called yardlong bean, long-podded cowpea, Chinese long bean, bodi/bora, snake bean, asparagus bean, snake bean or pea bean. It forms long beans that reach about 1/2 yard in length (50 cm). The green immature seed inside the pod is quite small. It is a vigorous annual vine, grown mostly in subtropical and tropical regions and is more popular in Asian cultures.

They are usually eaten in the green stage. Unlike the regular green bean which is usually cooked in water, this one is much better stir fried in oil.

Glycine max

This is the soybean; also spelled soya bean. It is grown as an edible bean and for the production of soybean meal, a cheap source of protein.

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

14 thoughts on “Difference Between Green Beans, String Beans and Runner Beans?”

  1. “Difference Between Green Beans, String Beans and Runner beans?”
    seed companies (in the UK at least) rarely put the latin names on plants, keeping us in the dark. here’s my twopeneth;
    the runner beans I grow (over 6′ supported) are flat, very fleshy, and get very ridged bumpy looking when over 6″ but pods remain tender, as a string developes, they still remain tender, but it’s easily removed before cooking, they have a pleasant immature bean too. They have a red flower and, eventually, a very big fat red and black mealy tough skinned bean that I don’t particularly like but save every year as seed. once a bean of over a certain size has grown, there’s a sort of “plasticy” bit in the runner, then I just pop the bean seed into a meal, they cook quick. They readily cross if a neighbour has runner beans, hence my seed are more black than red these days (blue when cooked). They produce early for runners, and just keep going till late autumn dampness takes them out. I consider this a bulk veg I wouldn’t be without my three plant, three sticks, a bit of twine, leave it alone with a mulch. They are a bit tricky to dry for seed saving in damp years due to their very fleshy pods.

    The French dwarf bean I grow is an old very early Russian variety. it’s no more than 12 inches, produces lovely tasty pale stringless not quite cylindrical pods. It has to get quite a bean filing out before they start to develope a string but is easily removed. I like to pick these when the bean in the pod has developed a bit even though I may have to string , I consider this a tasty treat, rather than a big cropper, my 15 tiny plants take up twice the space of 3 runners, AND when the weather turns cold the rodents want a share of the easily accessible beans. The fresh or dried cream and pink bean is super delicate thin skinned and tasty but I would have to plant buckets to get a staple. They are also very easy to dry as the pod quickly goes papery. Why don’t I grow its climbing cousin? If I find one that matches the flavour of the bean I will – toying with crossing mine with a climber to see what I get

    I grow a yummy cross karmazyn/aquadulce/? reddish broad bean, I have been away some years and (as with the other beans) have convinced the b&b owners to let me plant, so have ended up with my very prolific crosses, nothing much to say; bung em in, add string, eat till sick of them, save seed.

    most of these beans I have been growing for 20 years, with some breaks, bean seed seem to last well, touch wood, without pest problems in different parts of the uk. I always start in loo role inners inside.
    when I first started growing beans I used to fret about types/variety, but it boils down to how much room you have and what tastes good to you.
    I recommend trying different beans then sticking with them by saving the resulting (not f1) seed.

    Reply
  2. I still don’t know if stringless beans are a form of runner bean. But I found out a lot of other things.

    Reply
  3. I don’t see any answer to the title question: the difference between green, string, runner beans. It would also be nice to differentiate French beans. As I prepare for seeding beans and reading how to save my bean seeds, so many articles talk about slightly different practices for growing and saving beans of these varieties but none tell how to know which is which.

    Reply
  4. I am from Mississippi and we eat all of our beans fresh , canned or frozen. My parents never brought dry beans. We saved our own dry beans but to be used for seed in planting the next year.

    Reply
  5. Very informative – thanks.

    Question – How did Phaseolus Vulgaris ever become named “French Bean” since it originated in the Americas?

    Cheers,
    Dave

    Reply
  6. Why are the flowers of some runner beans red like scarlet runner….and some runner beans have white flowers. ?

    Reply
  7. We grew yellow wax beans ALWAYS instead of green beans because they TASTE better … it was no extra work … why are 95% of the grocery store beans ONLY green!!

    Since 1960 I have not understood why the public has been denied the better yellow wax beans? If anything, the script should be flipped … 95% of only yellow wax beans… survey after survey indicate yellow beans are preferred by the public … what are reason(s) for this dominant green bean in stores?

    Thanks.

    Reply
    • My wife does not like the yellow beans. In Canada we can get both at the grocery store, but green is the preferred bean.

      Reply
  8. How could you leave out vigna unguiculata subsp. sesquipedalis, AKA asparagus bean, snake bean or yardlong bean? It’s the bean you grow in the subtropics instead of phaseolus vulgaris.

    Reply

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