The ice cream beans (scientific name Inga edulis) are fruits found on the South American continent. The English name is caused by the sweet taste and creamy texture, which resembles ice cream. The scientific name comes from "inga", as it is known among the Tupí natives. The tree is cultivated widely in the Amazon Basin, since it has multiple uses as food, medicine, timber and shade. It is also the main ingredient in cachiri, a local alcoholic drink. It is grown in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and the Pernambuco province of Brazil.
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The ice cream bean tree is large in size and can grow up to a height of 30 m. Ice cream bean starts branching quite low, usually under the height of 3 m, and has a diameter of about 60 cm at breast level. The crown is rather dense, broad but with a flat shape. The trunk is covered in grey bark, with pale elongated lenticels. Fine hairs cover the young branches. The fruits are pods containing several black seeds. Each one of them is coated in a thick layer of juicy pulp. The sweet pulp resembles vanilla ice cream in both taste and texture.
The leaves are once-pinnate and consist of 4 to 6 pairs of opposite leaflets, with the ones at the end being larger than the ones at the base. While the leaves reach a total length of about 24 cm, the largest leaflets are maximum 18 cm long with a width of 11 cm. Nectary glands are located between every leaflet. A grayish sheen is found on the upper side of leaves of seedlings.
The flowers are densely grouped on axillary spikes. Every flower consists of a calyx tube and a corolla tube, with 5 lobes each. They have numerous white stamens about 4.5 cm in length, emerging from a tube.
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The fruits are very large in size and can even reach one meter in length. They are seed pods with a cylindrical shape that can be straight or twisted in a spiral. Inside the pods there are green seeds covered by edible sweet creamy pulp, white in color. The fruits become ripe during the wet season in the rainforest. The flesh is very popular among the birds and monkeys in the area, who discard the seeds as they eat it.
The ice cream bean is a very popular fruit all along its native range, especially among kids. The tree is native to Central and South America and there are numerous local variations in both the length and the color of the seed pods. It must be noted that the black seeds are also edible. They are not very tasty in raw form but can be boiled or even ground into a flour replacement.
However, it is the white flesh with a fluffy cotton-like appearance that covers the seeds makes the fruits so popular. It is very sweet and actually resembles the taste of vanilla ice cream. It is typically sucked or chewed off the seeds.
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The ice cream bean tree has several other advantages in cultivation. It is easily propagated by seeds and grows very quickly, with the added bonus of fixing nitrogen in the soil. It was extremely important as a food source during the Inca Empire and is still very valued by the Amazonian natives. It can be planted in Australia but some sites in NSW list it as an invasive species, so its cultivation in warm areas of the continent is potentially illegal.
Beans, leaves, bark.
The ice cream bean has medicinal properties, just like most of the Inga varieties found in Colombia. Both the leaves and the bark can be prepared as decoctions used to treat diarrhea due to their astringent effect or as a lotion in cases of rheumatism and arthritis. Root decoctions can be enhanced with pomegranate rind, then used to cure cases of diarrhea and dysentery. Dropsy and digestive problems can be treated with the bark and the fruit while the plant was also considered a counter for headaches by the Cuna Indians.
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However, the main use of the ice cream bean is as food. The white flesh that covers the seeds can be consumed raw or as an ingredient in dessert dishes in order to enhance their taste.
The ice cream bean tree is also a popular choice to provide shade for other species, in particular vanilla, cacao, coffee or tea, all across south and Central America. They are also cultivated for shade in parks and cities, as well as protection for watersheds. Even before the Spanish conquest of the Americas, the tree was mixed with cacao and coffee in plantations. They provide several big advantages: they grow very fast, increase soil fertility, prevent erosion, can survive radical pruning and provide a lot of shade. Natives of Colombia also use the aril to brew a traditional alcoholic drink named cachiri, which is drunk at a special festival.
In Panama, Choco Indians believe that the wood of ice cream bean tree doesn't rot so they use it to build the structure of their homes. It is often found cultivated for this purpose in their villages.
The original native range of the ice cream bean tree is very extensive, starting from the island of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean to the Amazon rainforest. It is usually found in wet areas near rivers and streams. Its seeds are spread by monkeys and birds that are attracted by the sweet flesh. Ice cream bean can reach an impressive size in the Amazon, where pods grow as big as 3 feet.
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The ice cream bean is very easy to propagate since it grows fast from seeds. The seed should be planted immediately after consuming the flesh and it will germinate and starts growing vigorously.
The ice cream bean seeds don't remain viable for long after the pod is opened. If you want to preserve them for more than a couple of days, they should be stored mixed with soil or moss in a plastic bag. Sometimes they start to germinate as they are still inside the pods and will need shade and a lot of humidity to grow well initially.
Despite its size in the wild, the ice cream bean tree can grow inside a container. It will be smaller though, with a lower number of pods. Potassium additives can be helpful but nitrogen fertilizers are not needed. It is possible to prune it to manage the size, but leave a few branches intact and don't cut too much of the crown. Like many rainforest trees, it doesn't tolerate either frost or drought. It grows well with bananas and passion fruits and has a life cycle of around 30 years in cultivation.
The ice cream bean fruit pods mature during the summer, the perfect time to harvest them. Since the seeds germinate readily when they fall to the ground, the tree can easily spread and become an invasive species. This is why you should be careful to collect any pods that fall from the tree and either consume them or throw them away.
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