Fava Bean vs. Lima Bean: What’s the Difference?

Written by Rebecca Mathews
Updated: October 26, 2022
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Fava beans and lima beans are very popular sources of tasty nutrition that we have cultivated across the globe for millennia, but can you tell the difference? Let’s discover what holds fava bean and lima bean apart.

The Key Differences Between the Fava Bean vs. Lima Bean

The key differences between these two nutritious legumes are their taste, how large the plant grows, and their foliage shape.

Fava beans are stronger in taste, and the stiff, upright plant reaches 5 feet tall with gray-green pinnate clusters of seven leaflets. Lima beans are creamier, and the pole varieties can grow 16 feet long with masses of heart-shaped pale green foliage.

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Fava BeanLima Bean
Name(Vicia faba)  (Phaseolus lunatus)
Other namesBroad bean, Fave beanMadagascar bean, Chad bean, Butter bean
Growing Zone2-102 -11
TasteNutty, creamy, cheesy, and bitter when olderCreamy, mild
FoliageMid-green and pinnate with up to seven gray-green leaflets on a upright stiff plantHeart-shaped and light green with white veins on a vine or bush
FlowersWhite with a black eyeWhite or pale purple
Bean appearanceGreen, smooth and fatter than Lima beansUsually smooth, fairly flat, and white, but there are red, orange, black and mottled versions
ToxicityNot toxic to humans, but toxic to dogsNot toxic to dogs, but human intake requires cooking

Background of Fava Beans vs. Lima Beans

Fava beans (Vicia faba) are a legume in the Fabaceae family alongside peas and beans.

Fava is Italian for bean, so the translation is bean bean! In the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, fava beans are called broad beans. They’re one of the oldest plants in cultivation, with a long history of providing excellent nutrition. Experts have traced them back 6000 years BCE to Meso-America, and they’ve been featured in most civilizations since.

The Fabaceae family also contains the lima bean (Phaseolus lunatus). You’ll find several of them in the US South. Beans from Madagascar can also be referred to as Burmese beans, Rangoon beans, Chadian beans, and in the United Kingdom, Butter beans. They were domesticated in Meso-South America for a very long time and share a rich history with humans. In the distant past (about 6,000 years ago)

Fresh Lima Beans

Lima beans are high in the anti-oxidant manganese.

©iStock.com/Eduardo1961

Lima Beans vs. Fava Beans: Native Regions

Lima and fava beans are native to Meso and South America but they are cultivated and eaten around the world.  

Are They Legumes?

Yes, both fava and lima beans come from legume species.

Legumes are plants in the Fabaceae family, and the term refers to the plants and the seeds (beans) we eat. When the beans are dried, they are sometimes referred to as pulses.

Evidence of humans eating legumes stretches back to the Stone Age. They’ve played an essential role in our evolution.

Fava Beans vs. Lima Beans: Growing Zones

Fava beans are incredibly rough and versatile. They’ll grow in Zone 2 up to Zone 10. Lima beans are possibly even tougher! They’ll grow in Zones 2 – 11.

Fava Beans vs. Lima Beans: Foliage

The foliage of fava and lima beans is quite different, so it’s easy to tell them apart.

Pole variety lima bean plants can grow up to 16 feet, but the bush varieties more suitable for container growing only reach a few feet. Their light green leaves are large and heart-shaped, with white veins running to the outer edge. Slim green tendrils automatically attach their stems to a support, but bush varieties hold themselves upright on short stems.  

In contrast, fava bean plants are stiff and erect. They reach around five feet tall and have a square stem with four to ten-inch green-grey leaves that are long and pinnate. Each leaf cluster has up to seven leaflets. It’s one of the few vetch plants that don’t use tendrils to cling on. The tips of young plants can be snipped off and eaten in salads.

Fava bean in the farm field

Fava beans are a remarkable source of soluble fiber.

©iStock.com/Queserasera99

Fava Beans vs. Lima Beans: Flowers

Fava and lima bean plants flower, and their flowers mature into bean pods.

Fava bean flowers are lipped like pea flowers, but they’re white with a black eye in the center. These pretty flowers are attractive to pollinators and edible, but don’t eat too many or you’ll have no crop of beans!

Lima bean flowers have a similar shape, but they’re either white without the black eye or pale purple depending on the cultivar.

Both lima and fava bean flowers self-pollinate, which means they have male and female flowers on the same plant.

Fava Bean vs. Lima Bean: Appearance

Lima beans grow in pods up to 5.9 inches in length, and the beans are typically over an inch long. They are kidney-shaped, somewhat flat, and come in a variety of hues, including orange, red, speckled black, but the most prevalent cultivars yield white beans.

The pods of fava beans are nearly identical to those of lima beans, but the beans themselves are distinct. Fava beans are typically green, plump, and no taller than one inch.

Do Fava Beans and Lima Beans Taste Different?

Taste is one of the main differences between these two very similar legumes! Fava beans are nutty, earthy, and creamy. Some folk think that they taste a little like cheese. Fava beans can get quite bitter if they’re old or overcooked. In comparison, Lima beans taste milder and creamier, plus their texture is rougher.

Can Dogs Eat Fava Beans and Lima Beans?

Dogs cannot eat fava beans. Fava beans are toxic to dogs because they contain phytohemagglutinin (PHA), which causes gastrointestinal cramping, diarrhea, and vomiting. In contrast, dogs may occasionally consume lima beans as a snack.

Are Beans Healthy?

Both fava and lima beans are healthy, but lima beans must be cooked first because the raw beans are toxic. They contain linamarin, a compound that turns into a type of cyanide when it’s eaten. Young fava beans can be eaten raw, but the skin of older beans should be removed first. Canned beans are usually pre-cooked but check the label first.

Lima and fava beans contain lots of soluble and insoluble dietary fiber and barely any fat. They are packed with potassium, calcium, sodium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, and they are a great source of B vitamins. Legumes are great for gut health. Few other veggies serve up so much goodness.

How To Grow Fava Beans vs. Lima Beans

Fava and lima beans are very easy to grow and look after. They’re a warm-season crop, so the beans won’t germinate until spring, but if you’re in a cold area, you can get the jump by planting them in pots on a sunny windowsill. Both Lima and fava beans don’t mind transplantation when they’re young.

Fava beans can be planted the winter before to obtain an earlier crop. Get them in before snowfall, and they’ll reach a few inches tall before resting in late winter and growing on in early spring. One of the best varieties to overwinter is Aquadulce.

If you are transplanting immature beans or seeding beans directly into the soil, you must wait until all danger of frost has passed. Moisture and cold can cause ungerminated seeds to decay. Both fava and lima beans mature in around three months.

Growing Fava Beans

  • Choose a spot in full sun or partial shade. Fava beans prefer neutral to acidic soil, but they will grow in the most fertile earth.
  • Push a bean (or young plant) one – two inches into the soil
  • Space them around six inches apart
  • Water well
  • When plants appear, keep them well-watered and fed
  • As plants approach their mature height, they may flop, especially in windy conditions. Use supports to keep them upright. Some gardeners grow fava beans in a square so they can lasso the patch and keep them upright with less effort.
  • It’s important to keep them well watered because the flowers will fall off if they get too dry.
  • If black fly infests the soft top shoots, pick the shoot off. It won’t harm the plant.
  • Harvest pods when they reach around eight inches or earlier if you like sweet fava beans.

Growing Lima Beans

Follow the instructions for growing fava beans, but if you’re growing a pole variety it’s important to construct a strong supporting trellis, pyramid, or wire fence. Lima beans vines need something to cling to.

It’s worth knowing that fava and lima beans are nitrogen fixers, which means they add essential nitrogen to the soil instead of taking it all away. This is really helpful for crop rotation.

Are They Annuals?

Both fava beans and lima beans are annual plants, which means they do all their growing and die off within one year. However, fava beans can be treated as a biennial by planting them in late fall for an early crop the following spring.

Fava Beans vs. Lima Beans: Which Is Better?

There’s very little to choose between these two beans because they’re great for health and easy to grow.
The main differences are their taste and the space needed to grow them. Fava beans have a deeper creamy, nutty flavor, whereas lima beans are sweeter with a rough texture. However, pole-variety lima beans need space to grow. Their vines can reach 16 feet!

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The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/Eduardo1961


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About the Author

Rebecca is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on plants and geography. Rebecca has been writing and researching the environment for over 10 years and holds a Master’s Degree from Reading University in Archaeology, which she earned in 2005. A resident of England’s south coast, Rebecca enjoys rehabilitating injured wildlife and visiting Greek islands to support the stray cat population.

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Sources
  1. Plant Hardiness, Available here: https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/