Most Inga species occur in the lowland tropics of the Americas, but several occur in the upland Andes. The main Andean one is Inga feuillei (pronounced “few-i-lee”). It is widely grown in highland valleys as well as in coastal lowlands of Peru and Ecuador where it is often employed as a shade tree or street tree. Its pods, prized as snacks, are found in markets and on street vendors carts and are often consumed by children.
Inga feuilleei (after Louis Feuillée and often misspelled as Inga feuilleei) commonly known as Pacay, is a legume, meaning it is a relative of green beans, snap peas, alfalfa, lentils, and peanuts. The pods are mostly narrow, straight, and in some species as long as a person’s forearm. They are easily cracked open to expose the white, sugar-rich pulp – reminiscent of cotton candy -surrounding the seeds. In English they have been called “ice-cream beans” because this white pulp has a sweet flavor and smooth texture. Its pods are depicted in ancient ceramics. The Incas had Pacay pods carried to their mountain capital of Cuzco. Pedro Pizarro reports that the Inca emperor Atahualpa sent to Francisco Pizarro a basketful of Guamas as a gift.
The fragrant flowers are arranged in crowded heads, spikes, or panicles at the stem tips or axils. Because they are rich in nectar, they attract bees, hummingbirds, and a variety of beetles. Fruit begins to mature a few months after pollination, and production may be twice a year. The pods may be flat, twisted, or cylindrical. They are often flattened or four-sided, the margins frequently overhanging. They grow up to 70 cm long and 1–3 cm in diameter, usually with the seeds buried in the white, sweet pulp.
Pacay (pacae) is a Quechua word used in Spanish specifically for the upland Andes species. “Guama” or “guaba” are names widely used for any Inga species whose pods have sweet pulp. Inga edulis is considered the best species for shade in coffee plantations in Colombia; Inga vera is common in Central America. Although pacay pods are already widely consumed in rural areas of the Andes, there are still many possibilities for developing Inga fruits as cash crops. One potential for expanding markets exists in cities, particularly among newly urbanized campesinos. As with other fruit crops; Pacay lends itself to new entrepreneurial ventures, small-business enterprise, and economic development among the poorest levels of society.
Inga species are dependable, they produce in abundance, and they provide sustenance in bad times. They are a source of snacks for their owners and cash for the enterprising. They grow rapidly, are tolerant of diverse soils, and are resistant to diseases and fire. They are easy to establish, spread their shade quickly, and provide fruit for years. Inga trees produce abundant root nodules, which fix nitrogen, and benefit the land by raising fertility levels. The development of markets for the pods could contribute additional income to local farmers. Fruit trees such as Ingas are underutilized in reforestation efforts. Give a peasant a pine tree and it’s likely to be neglected, but give him a fruit tree and he’ll protect it with his life, especially if it is productive. The name ‘inga’ is derived from its name with the Tupi Indians of South America. The specific name, ‘edulis’ means edible.
Colombian Indians prepare an alcoholic beverage from the aril. The beverage, called cachiri, is consumed at a festival of the same name. Choco Indians of Panama use this or related species for making their upright house beams, believing they do not rot in contact with the soil. Nearly half the Choco houses have this tree cultivated nearby.
I’ve been having a disagreement with a friend who seems to think that Pacay and Paternas are the same. “Inga Paternas” are usually larger than a foot long, thick, and you can eat the white cotton around the dark green soft beans and the beans themselves. “Pacay or Cushines , on the other hand, are shorter, thinner, and the little black hard beans are not edible. These two types of pods (“vainas”) are of the same family.