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Beyond The Backyard – Paternal Instinct

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This foot long pod can be seen as revered and depicted in the Pre Colombian ceramics of the early Incas and pods found in tombs. With over 300 species of Inga growing in the tropical Americas perhaps for the past two million years, many of which are recorded as growing in Belize, how do I know which pod I hold in my hand? I was introduced to this as the ice cream bean and told there were three types growing around Dangriga. Searching pictures I found Inga edulis, Inga punctata, Inga feuillei and Inga spectabilis all referred to as the ice cream bean. Other names are Shimbillo, Chochoki, Guamo, Joaquiniquil, Pacay and here at market and in Maya back yards it is best known as Chelel, Bri Bri or Paterna. This is a majestic tree, white pompom flowers in the mimosa family, pale colored bark with zig zag markings, found on riverbanks and moist forests reaching to a height of fifty feet. It is easy to start and fast growing, in fact as it has no dormant stage the sprouted bean can grow ten centimeters in just two weeks and will produce pods in as little as three years. Ya’axche Conservation Trust at Golden Stream is one of the organizations working with communities that have been introducing farmers to the use of Inga trees to protect and increase their corn and other crops. In their publication” Integrated Farming Manual ” they refer to Inga edulis for Inga Alley cropping, explain its benefits and how it is done complete with informative illustrations.  IMG_20150601_114251This also shows how agroforestry is used as a cultivation strategy for raising crops within a rainforest allowing leaves to naturally compost and attract plants and insects thus creating an integrated and diverse ecosystem. Planting more trees simulates this on lands previously used for mono culturing crops and is a valuable addition to waste lands. The Inga tree is low maintenance when planted in its preferred full sun with warm moist ground, sheltered from high winds. It can grow in poor soil and is employed to restore soil fertility, fix nitrogen, prevent erosion and shade crops such as coffee, cacao and vanilla. The fallen leaves break down slowly and can be used as a good mulch to prevent weeds and regular coppicing will provide green manure and mulch.The tree is relatively disease and fire resistant and does not appear to be unduly bothered by pests. It has a nectar gland between each leaflet which attracts ants who in turn cut down pest invasion yet does not attract the leaf cutter army. The flowers are a magnet for nectar seeking bees. The Inga tree is a successful guardian to timber trees such as the mahogany which is plagued by the dreaded shoot borer Hypsia. So we see how it gets it’s name as the protective father. There is some evidence that it can contact the same viral diseases of the trees it shades and I would guess that closely related species could be prone to the same diseases so should not be bedded together. A high plant diversity protects host plants from outbreaks of diseases which is what agroforestry teaches. Plants that are at greater risk are those outside their native habitat. That is like the tourist visiting Placencia beach and becoming fresh meat for the sand flies.

The Inga tree has other uses.The trunks make good house posts as they are not inclined to rot and the branches are excellent firewood and low smoke fuel for cooking. It makes a grand living fence so much cheaper than wire. In Amazonia the sap from the tree is used as a mordant to set dye.

_1040028When I first heard that the tree gets cut down to 5 feet when used in alley cropping, my reaction was “oh no,there goes dinner.” This article was intended to bring attention to the value of Inga as sustenance. Edulis means edible But all have a promising future for sustainability. Inga is underestimated here I doubt that it has much future commercially as the fruit spoils quickly. Yet I have seen the beans bottled in brine in gourmet stores, roasted and served as street snacks in Mexico and South America. The Inga paterno is referred to as one of Costa Rica’s best fruits.

Opening the pod is a wonderful experience. Children love this. Inside are rows of seeds wrapped in furry white jackets. This raw pulp ,the aril, is a tasty sweet surprise rich in vitamins. It can also be boiled for a few minutes in salty water, drained and served with squeeze of lime and a dash of chilli molido. The aril is used to make alcohol and a fermented beverage called cachiri. To add to the exciting pod opening the bean starts germinating, popping out a root and shoot right before your eyes. If you wish to plant these they need to be potted upright in good soil within 48 hours. You can soak them overnight in water with ground up Inga root to inoculate them and give them a healthy start.

If you want to eat them you must boil or roast them and that takes about 35 minutes. They are delicious as a snack or vegetable alone or the star of sour bean soup. Beans provide a good source of protein. 110 g of seed will give you 10.7 g of protein, 0.7 g fat, 24.0 carbohydrate, 1.6 g fiber, an abundance of minerals and 118 calories, in case you’re counting. The seeds of the Inga come in several colors but these of the Paterna are green. Apart from food value and culinary delight, there are some medicinal uses. A decoction of leaves, bark and root can be used for diarrhea, rheumatism and healing wounds. A syrup can be made from the aril to relieve coughs and bronchitis. According to the boys swimming at the Macal the leaves are good for cleaning your diving mask. What a strange discovery!

I bought Paterna in Belmopan market at the end of April but I am pretty sure it has a second crop.Each pod has a retail value of 75 cents. I purchased 10, ate half, planted half and added the pods to the compost.

While we see that Inga has a great value as a protector of crops, it should be a welcomed addition to any garden as a handsome formidable tree and a humble delicious vegetable.

Farming and gardening are complex subjects and only by exploring both traditional and scientific knowledge can one make informed decisions. I am thankful for the steps in the direction of becoming organic and pesticide free where possible and halting the destruction of our rainforest. This is a very real problem.

Many thanks to the British tropical ecologist Mike Hands for his tireless efforts to find the answer to failure of tropical soils and for introducing Inga alley cropping to Central American farmers. I encourage everyone to view the Inga Foundation movie ” Up in Smoke”, and help stop to the denuding of our mountains and forests.

Thanks also to Ya’axche for their part in the educational campaign to stop slash and burn and for the promotion of agroforestry. for information on their work and the importance of biodiversity. Excellent video.

And to get the Integrated Farming Manual go to

Good luck with your Inga and as always we welcome your input.
Jenny Wildman


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