At least four of the species have been domesticated since pre-Columbian times for their beans. Most prominent among these is the common bean, P. vulgaris, which today is cultivated worldwide in tropical, semitropical, and temperate climates.
Previous classifications placed a number of other well-known legume species in this genus, but they were subsequently re-assigned to the genus Vigna, sometimes necessitating a change of species name. For example, older literature refers to the mung bean as Phaseolus aureus, whereas more modern sources classify it as Vigna radiata. Similarly, the snail bean Vigna caracalla was discovered in 1753 and in 1970 moved from Phaseolus to Vigna. The modern understanding of Phaseolus indicates a genus endemic only to the New World.
The generic name Phaseolus was introduced by Linnaeus in 1753, borrowed from the Latin phaseolus a combination of phasēlus and the diminutive suffix -olus, in turn borrowed from Greek φάσηλος 'cowpea' (often incorrectly glossed as 'kidney bean', a New World crop), whose ultimate origin is unknown.