Home & Garden

Ice cream bean tree: Sweetness by the scoop

CookingLifestyle and LeisureChemical IndustryFertilizer

When it comes to drought-tolerant, fast-growing shade trees, few are as useful as the ice cream bean tree, Inga edulis (and its 300-plus related species). Although it grows like a tree, the ice cream bean actually is a legume. It can grow 60 feet or longer, and after four years in the ground it starts putting out foot-long pods packed with lima bean-size seeds swaddled in an edible, sweet, cottony covering.

"When we went hunting in [El] Salvador and we are thirsty, we eat it," said Manuel Cisneros, the agricultural project coordinator at the Growing Experience, an urban farm at the Carmelitos housing development in Long Beach. "In Salvador they don’t grow at sea level, but here they do. It grows so easily. If you throw the seed on the ground, the next year you will see a tree there."

Ice cream bean plants are native to a large region spanning from Puerto Rico to Mexico to the Amazon, where the pods can reach 3 feet. The plants often grow near rivers and are spread by birds and monkeys that adore the beans encased in the leathery shells.

Coffee and cacao farmers also plant ice cream bean for its canopy of shade and its ability to fix nitrogen in the soil, making it more fertile. Ice cream bean also is used for reforestation projects, valued for rapid growth as well as its tolerance of acidic soils. Thanks to the plant's broad leaves, weeds rarely get established beneath it.

The tree at Cisneros' garden is 6 years old and more than 30 feet high. It pumps out pods that go into produce boxes for subscribers of the Growing Experience's community supported agriculture program, or CSA.

Ice cream bean plants can be propagated from seed easily. Once the pod is opened, the seeds don't last long -- only a few days unless kept moist, usually in a plastic bag with some soil or peat moss. Frequently the weeds will have already started spouting within the pods. They depend on high humidity to stay viable and should be kept in the shade during germination.

Exotica Rare Fruits in Vista has seedlings that can be traced back to seeds brought back from Oaxaca 30 years ago. You might also stop by the Saturday farmers market at the Growing Experience and see if pods are for sale.

The plant can grow in a container, although you won't get as many pods. It won’t need any nitrogen fertilizer, but it will benefit from potassium additives, especially if it’s dropping leaves. It can be pruned to be kept low, but be careful of cutting too much. A few branches should be left alone.

The Global Garden, a look at our multicultural city through the lens of its landscapes, appears here on Tuesdays. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page for Gardening in the West. Email: home@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
CookingLifestyle and LeisureChemical IndustryFertilizer
  • Weed or feed? An edible nuisance called purslane
    Weed or feed? An edible nuisance called purslane

    You’re probably already growing purslane. That could be good or bad. Originally from India and the Middle East, this green succulent has long been a reliable food source for foraging humans. The ground cover is not only edible, it grows fast and requires no maintenance. Gandhi listed...

  • Prickly pear cactus: How to harvest fruit without getting poked
    Prickly pear cactus: How to harvest fruit without getting poked

    Opuntia, the prickly pear cactus, originated in South America, moved into the valleys of the Andes and then north into Mexico and North America. In Southern California, opuntia grows in the coastal scrub, in front and back yards, and at community gardens -- particularly if there’s a...

  • A modern mash-up: A his-and-hers house with color, cheer and charm
    A modern mash-up: A his-and-hers house with color, cheer and charm

    When interior decorator Jackie Terrell decided to move in with her boyfriend, Lawrence Turman, the couple had the equivalent of a few shipping containers' worth of beloved possessions. The design challenge: finding creative ways to edit, repurpose and blend the communal bounty into a...

  • Sophisticated Robert Kuo designs on display at Pacific Design Center
    Sophisticated Robert Kuo designs on display at Pacific Design Center

    Robert Kuo is a designer for all ages. Marrying ancient Chinese motifs and crafts including enamel cloisonne, lacquer work and hammered copper repousse with sleek modern forms, he has consistently redefined contemporary art furniture and accessories since opening his namesake West Hollywood...

  • 'Good Morning America's' Lara Spencer talks flea market fun, finds
    'Good Morning America's' Lara Spencer talks flea market fun, finds

    When she’s not co-anchoring “Good Morning America,” Lara Spencer can be found shopping at the Elephant’s Trunk Flea Market near her home in Connecticut. “It’s not about the money,” Spencer said of her passion for flea markets. “It’s about...

  • Water-wise fall planting
    Water-wise fall planting

    How to tackle fall planting in Southern California during the third straight year of drought and the diminishing likelihood of El Niño storms this winter? At the very least, Los Angeles gardening experts agree that planting in the fall is water-wise as new plants require less...