Ever heard of ice cream beans? I know, I know, ice cream doesn’t grow on trees – but there really is such thing as the ice cream bean.
It’s scientific name is Inga Edulis and this South American-native tree produces a delicious legume surrounded by a pulp that actually tastes like vanilla ice cream! At least my kids seem to think so.
I like it because it provides a ton of biomass and nitrogen for my other fruit trees, that I do like the taste more of.
Ice cream bean trees are really easy to grow by seed and very fast growing. They love the wet tropics, but arenʻt invasive because of the large seed. Theyʻre a great tree for everyone!
Related: Are you looking to grow tropical fruit trees, like Ice Cream Bean? Youʻre in luck. Homesteadinʻ Hawaii has just opened a seed store, where we ship super fresh tropical tree seeds straight to your door. We have fruits like abiu, surname cherry, ice cream bean, rollinia and more! Check out the store today!
Ice Cream Bean Trees: What Do They Produce?
Planting an Inga Edulis (Ice Cream bean) tree is one of the easiest trees to grow – but, it is good to use fresh beans because they germinate very easily and lose their viability quickly.
These trees are well-known throughout South America and are often grown for their shade, as a source of timber, for the beans as food, as a source of nectar for bees, and the bark is even a common traditional medicine in some countries.
These trees are so useful: if you’re planting a fruit forest, you definitely should consider adding the incredible ice cream bean tree. To learn more about creating your own food forest, you should definitely check out this article which goes into depth on how to design your own.
What are Ice Cream Bean Trees?
What exactly is an ice cream bean tree? The Inga Edulis tree can be found in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil, with many different species, that produce edible legumes, found within pods of the tree.
They get their name from the pulp surrounding the beans (not the beans themselves) which has a delicious, vanilla ice cream flavor. The pulp can be eaten fresh, or used in syrups.
The beans themselves taste something like garbanzo beans (chickpeas) and must be boiled before they are consumed.
Why Should You Grow Them?
The ice cream bean tree is one of the most useful plants you can grow: not only are the beans and pulp of the pods edible, but the trees also fix nitrogen into the soil and the fallen leaves are great to use as mulch or compost.
However, theyʻre not the only plants that grow in the tropics and produce nitrogen, there are a few others that you can learn about in this post.
Benefits of the Ice Cream Bean Tree:
Food: Obviously, the tree produces pods with black-colored beans that are a source of food, not only for ourselves but for animals as well (fully boil the beans before eating them). The pulp inside is also food.
Nitrogen for the soil: One of the cool things about this plant is that it adds nitrogen to the soil! Plant this tree beside other plants that need increased nitrogen content in the soil.
Shade: Ice cream bean trees can grow over 90 ft tall, making them a great choice to grow along with coffee plants or cacao plants.
Pruned branches and dropped Leaves: The dropped leaves are said to be great mulch, and the branches are full of nutrients, which is good for the soil, too. If you choose to, the branches can also make great firewood, burning for a medium amount of time.
Bark: The bark of the tree has been used in traditional medicine in South American communities for centuries.
Roots: Traditionally, the roots are said to be helpful for treating dysentery (not that you’re likely to be dealing with that! Just an example of how useful these trees are).
Reduce soil erosion: These hearty trees are not picky about the soil they grow in (remember – they improve the soils as they grow!), they can be used in moist areas with poor soil as a means of reducing erosion and encouraging the return of other plantlife, over time.
How To Grow Ice Cream Bean Trees:
Now that you know why to grow ice cream bean trees, lets look at how to grow them.
First, you should be in growing zones 9-11 to grow these lovely trees, they won’t do well in cold temperatures so it should be in a tropical environment, like Hawaii.
What you need are fresh pods, with the seeds still inside. Now getting a fresh pod (outside of their native growing area) can be tricky – you have to find someone with an ice cream bean tree who will share (or sell) some fresh beans.
Lucky for you, I can help fill that void. My seed nursery specializes in sending fresh Ice Cream Bean seeds to buyers in Hawaii and beyond. If you are looking for some seeds, check to see if they are in stock in our store.
Seeds lose their viability in a very short amount of time (under 14 days) and often, they begin germinating while still in the pod. Unlike other legumes, you cannot plant dry the beans of an ice cream bean tree.
Something to keep in mind is that it is unlikely you will be able to germinate a seed (or a seed within a pod) that has been refrigerated for any length of time, which is why I emphasize getting fresh pods.
How To Grow Ice Cream Bean Trees From Seed:
While obtaining fresh beans can be a challenge, once you’re lucky enough to get the beans, planting is incredibly easy.
- Pop the bean in dirt and give it a good watering.
- Plant 1-2 inches in moist soil
- Check the soil on a weekly basis to make sure it’s not dry
- If you’re planting in a pot, make sure there are sufficient drainage holes in the container so the plant won’t get bogged down.
- If you’re planting directly in the soil, weed the area first, so there is nothing to compete against the bean.
- Wait 1-2 weeks for germination. It might be even faster, as sometimes the beans can germinate in the pod. Most of my seeds germinate in as little as 5 days!
- If you’ve planted it in a pot, transfer it to the ground after 4-5 months, at the latest. These trees are so beneficial to the soil, you want to plant them directly in the ground, not contain them in a pot.
Something to keep in mind is that they are very resilient. You can try and do everything you can to kill it while transplanting and it will most likely continue to grow for you. So if you feel like you made a mistake, have faith. Ice Cream Bean Trees want to grow.
Can You Grow Ice Cream Bean Trees From Cuttings?
Please don’t try to grow an ice cream bean tree from a cutting – the fastest method is by a germinated seed.
This is a fast-growing tree, so if you want to save time, try planting a seedling from a nursery. You’ll likely only save six months or less by planting a seedling instead of the seed itself.
Requirements For A Health Growing Ice Cream Bean Tree
Ice cream bean trees are hearty, and not worried much about sandy or poor soil. They don’t mind short periods of drought, either (they likely won’t lose their leaves during a dry spell, but you will get fewer pods).
Don’t plant ice cream trees in soil with a lot of clay, though, because they will not grow well.
You do not need to provide fertilizer to these trees – they add nitrogen into the soil! Just scatter the dropped, dry leaves around the ground as a form of mulch and watch this tree do it’s thing!
Inga Edulis needs plenty of sunlight. I use them as a sun blocker for fruit trees that donʻt like as much sun. The canopy is full in the summer when the sun is stronger, then the ice cream bean gets hacked back in the winter to provide more mild sunshine during the winter months.
Cold temperatures will harm, or even kill, these trees – so don’t plant outdoors if you live in a cool climate (you’ll have to pot them and bring them indoors each winter).
Ice cream bean trees need regular watering (every 5 days or so), but they shouldn’t get overly wet- just keep the soil damp.
Once the tree has been growing for some time (6 months – 12 months) it can probably withstand a short drought. So, if you’ve planted them outdoors and get a hard, dry summer, don’t worry too much about these trees.
Remember that these trees can grow over 90 feet tall? That being said, you want to prune them, just to keep their shape and size down.
They are great shade trees, the leaves make an awesome canopy. If you’re using them as a shade for other crops, prune them to control the canopy’s shape (maybe even thin it out a bit) and make sure they don’t grow so tall that they don’t offer sufficient shade anymore.
There really is no method to the madness though. Ice cream beans respond really well to pruning. You can cut the tree back to a branchless stump and it will begin to resprout, so prune as you need to and prune heavily, because it will grow right back.
To learn more about pruning tropical fruit trees, check out this post which dives deeper into the subject.
Growth and Harvesting
The ice cream tree is a fast-growing tree: in approximately 3 years your planted bean will have transformed into a pod-producing tree!
These trees are self-pollinating, so you don’t need to grow multiple trees, unless you want to (and, because they are so good for the soil, you will probably want to).
Also, these guys grow true-to-seed! What you plant is what you get, unlike some of the other trees I grow.
Pods can grow up to 2 ½ feet long and contain six or more black beans (and that yummy pulp!). Collect the pods when they start dropping to the ground (but don’t let them stay on the ground – they will start germinating new trees before you know it!).
You don’t have to let all the pods drop before you pick them, just take lots of falling pods as a sign that the pods are ready to harvest.
Ants And Ice Cream Bean Trees
A really cool thing about these trees is their relationship with ants. They have a friendly relationship (scientific term: symbiotic relationship) with ants. The ants enjoy the nectar of the blooms of the ice cream tree (I imagine, they probably taste like ice cream to the ants, too), and in return, the critters help to keep away other pests and make these trees grow better, naturally.
If you find your healthy tree has an ant colony on or around it – don’t move it away! Those ants may be the very reason your tree is happy and healthy. They are one of the reasons this tree doesn’t encounter very many pests in Hawaii and grows easily.
The ice cream bean might not be so easy to find, but if you do, it is very easy to grow. This fast-growing tree has many uses; for shade, as food and to improve your soil. It just needs a warm, sunny climate like Hawaii to flourish (and, maybe a colony of ants, too).
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