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The Inga Trees of South America – Ice Cream that Grows on a Tree

It’s now summer in South America, where everyone’s favorite summer snack – ice cream – literally grows on trees! Inga, or ice cream beans, grow plentifully throughout South and Central America, and in addition to their sweet tasting pulp, they have incredible soil regenerating properties that have the potential to combat destructive slash and burn practices in South America’s rainforests.

The inga genus, which takes its name from the Tupi tribe of South America, represents more than 300 species of shrubs and trees. A few types, such as inga edulis and inga feuillei produce delicious pods throughout much of the year. Although not well known outside of the region, they’ve been popular among locals for a long time. Pod remains have been found in ancient Incan pottery, and even today they are commonly sold in marketplaces.

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The sweet, fluffy pulp of an inga bean – photo credit Forest and Kim Starr

They can be found all throughout Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean. In Mexico, inga seeds are roasted and sold to moviegoers much like popcorn. In Costa Rica it’s called guaba, and its popularity has lead to the word spreading to other contexts. There, guaba also means ‘lucky’, and a particularly lucky person could be called a guabero. In other parts of South America, they are called pacay or shimbillo.

Although they are legumes, ice cream beans are unusual because they are often eaten like fruits. Inside their leathery pods, the beans are surrounded by a sweet, fluffy pulp that tastes like vanilla ice cream (some varieties can also taste like cinnamon). Although they don’t keep particularly well, they can be eaten right off the tree. They grow to incredible lengths, with some individual pods recorded at more than 2 meters (6.5 feet) long!

Inga trees can live for up to 30 years and grow to more than 30 meters (96 feet) high. They don’t start producing pods for 2-4 years, but they do grow remarkably quickly and can survive in poor soils. In fact, like most legumes they are nitrogen fixing, meaning that they improve the quality of soil by turning unusable nitrogen in the atmosphere into ammonia, which can be absorbed by living things.

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Pineapples growing in an alley between inga trees, which keeps the soil fertile – photo credit Inga Foundation

This property makes inga trees ideal for alley cropping. When planted alongside cash crops like coffee or cacao, they work overtime by not only improving the quality of the soil, but also by providing shade and shelter from heavy rains with their quick growing, thick leaves. This method is being promoted by Mike Hands, a farmer and environmentalist from the UK.

In areas plagued by slash and burn practices and deforestation, this could be just the solution needed to revitalize the environment. Farmers can improve crop outputs, with a bonus tasty snack. When the trees get too large, the branches make excellent firewood and are used to make charcoal in many regions.

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The thick, fast growing leaves of the inga tree – photo credit Tatters

But plantations aren’t the only place that can benefit from the incredible ice cream beans, as they are also used as street trees. Quick growing with a wide canopy, the trees provide lots of shade for residents. If planted in low income areas, they can be a small source of income for enterprising citizens, at very little cost. New trees can be easily planted, with seed germination rates at 90-95%.

It might be tempting to think that as a fruit ice cream beans are a healthy alternative to real ice cream, but in fact they aren’t particularly nutritious. To be fair, they do literally grow on trees, which is more than can be said about most other desserts.

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Dig in! – photo credit Jason Hollinger

If you enjoyed this article about inga trees, check out the archive for more tree stories. Also check out the Facebook page, with a few extra tree goodies throughout the week. Subscribe below to receive notifications whenever a new tree story is published.

As always, feel free to drop a comment below. It’s always nice to hear from you!

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Further reading:

https://www.kew.org/blogs/archived-blogs/ever-had-ice-cream-bean-dessert

https://www.nap.edu/read/1398/chapter/33

http://www.worldagroforestry.org/treedb/AFTPDFS/Inga_edulis.PDF

http://tropical.theferns.info/viewtropical.php?id=Inga+edulis

17 Comments

      • Cheers for the encouraging words! Same to you (keep up the good work). Your blog actually fills what my wife and I feel is a significant gap in our knowledge. We love nature and being out in it, but know so little about the language which defines it, particularly where trees are concerned.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks! You’re exactly who I write these articles for! I had a similar problem when I first wanted to learn more about trees. Most of the information available is about botany, which is great, but not relevant for laypeople. There are also sites with fantastic tree pictures, but little or no context. I wanted to create a place where cultural and historical significance (and sometimes pure novelty) of trees takes center stage. I try to make the articles accessible to as many people as possible. Gotta spread the joy!

        Liked by 2 people

  1. Ana Serrano Navarro

    Ummm, yummy!!! I didn’t know about that tree, I would like to see one and eat that delicious icecream

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Inga Trees of South America – Ice Cream that Grows on a Tree – TruthEarth Followed your blog TuthEarth.org

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