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.
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.
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.
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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