Posted on: Monday, December 15, 2014 by Darryl McCullough
Inga is the genus name for a family of some three hundred species of nitrogen-fixing trees, native to the Amazon basin and other warm areas of the Western Hemisphere. All of them produce their seeds in a pod, and the pulp surrounding the seeds is edible and nutritious. The species considered the best-tasting is Inga edulis, the "edible" Inga, generally known by its catchy if rather fanciful handle, the Ice Cream Bean. The very similar Inga feuilleei also answers to that name, but is often called the Pacay tree.
Inga are ideal as a tropical "alley-cropping" tree, to be planted between sections of other crops, especially coffee. They grow rapidly in very poor soils without nitrogen supplementation, producing quick shade for the sun-shy coffee plant. They can be coppiced for mulch or firewood, and even produce something edible themselves.
I've never tasted an Ice Cream Bean myself. Opinions about its flavor vary widely. Some are quite fond of it, but more than a few think it's not worth the bother. Varying claims are made about its cold tolerance as well, perhaps due to confusion between very similar species in the genus.
I might have a chance to taste one before long, though. I bought a skinny little tree labeled "Inga" at the MRFC sale in 2012. It's become quite an attractive ornamental, with its deep green pinnate leaves on winged stems. Emerging growth tinged with gold produces a delightful effect, and the small white flowers, though unspectacular, are pleasant enough. The tree adds new meaning to the term vigorous grower; I've just pruned it down to about twelve feet, but it's a good mulch producer: after a few days of drying, the leaves shake off the branches, which then could pass quite easily into a small chipper. The tree loves water, benefitting greatly from an irrigated spot, but earns it with its charming looks and useful nutrient generating ability.
Time will tell as to my Inga's cold tolerance--- it passed unfazed through a dip below freezing in early 2013, but hasn't had a real test. Barring a freeze-out, it should start its "ice cream" production before long. My mango trees don't look worried.