By Erin Marissa Russell
Most gardeners (and people in general) know what vegetables are, and most of us also know that beans are legumes, but what is the difference between vegetables and legumes? Aren’t beans vegetables, too? What makes a vegetable a vegetable and a legume a legume, anyway? We’ve got the answers for you right here. The short answer is that vegetables can be any part of the plant in general, but legumes are the seed portion only of a plant, either dried or fresh, such as peas or lentils. Keep reading for a more detailed explanation!
Vegetables Versus Legumes: Definitions
Before we can really get into the similarities and differences between vegetables and legumes, we need to know exactly what these two words mean. When it comes down to it, the definitions of these two categories and the difference between them are pretty simple.
- The foods we call vegetables come from various parts of the plant. The veggies we eat may consist of a plant’s leaves, roots, stems, shoots, tubers, or even flowers (as in the case of squash blossoms).
- In contrast, the legumes we eat come from one specific part of the plant: the seeds. Sometimes we eat the immature seeds, as in the case of beans or green peas, which are sometimes called English peas. In other cases, we eat mature seeds after they’ve been dried. This is true for chickpeas, lentils, and dried beans and peas. Some legumes may be eaten either fresh or dried. For instance, you may have seen fresh black-eyed peas in the produce section of the grocery store, but you’ll also find black-eyed peas in their dried form on the shelf.
- “Vegetables” is a broad category that can further be broken down into various vegetable types. We’ve listed these vegetable types below and provided examples. There is some overlap with the terms—as with potatoes, which are both root vegetables and nightshades, or collard greens, which are both brassicas and leafy greens. Also, some of the foods we call vegetables from a culinary or dietary standpoint may botanically be fruits, as with tomatoes.
- Cruciferous veggies (also called brassicas): Arugula, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, horseradish, kale, kohlrabi, kohlrabi, Napa cabbage, radish, rutabaga, turnip, watercress
- Cucurbit vegetables: Cucumber, pumpkin, squash, watermelon, zucchini
- Leafy greens: Arugula, collard greens, kale, lettuce, mustard greens, spinach, Swiss chard
- Nightshade vegetables: Bell peppers, eggplants, potatoes, tomatoes
- Root vegetables (sometimes called tubular or bulb vegetables): Beets, carrots, garlic, onions, potatoes, shallots, sweet potatoes, rutabagas, turnips
- Other vegetables: Celery, mushrooms, okra, squash, zucchini
One more thing gardeners should know about legumes is that they deposit nitrogen in the soil, making it more fertile (which is what makes them such an excellent companion plant for many vegetables).
It does get confusing trying to break the vegetable category down into all the different types, with the substantial amount of overlap between groups and foods that are vegetables on the plate but are botanically considered fruits. When it comes to vegetables versus legumes, however, the difference is clear: while veggies can consist of any portion of the plant, legumes are always seeds.