DesignPlants

5 Chop-and-Drop, Nitrogen-Fixing Perennial Legumes for the Tropics and Beyond

Recently, I’ve been looking to buy land in the tropics, most likely southern Belize, and in doing so, my wife and I have high hopes for making a lush and fruitful food forest that is likely only possible somewhere like this. It’s a land of mangos, avocadoes, cacao, coffee, papaya, chaya, okra, hibiscus, all spice, mulberries, coconuts, jackfruit, cashew, pecan, sour sop, limes, oranges…it’s easy to get carried away with all the trees. But, then we might forget the rest of the forest: the vanilla bean, bananas, plantains, ginger, turmeric, chayote, passion fruit, and it just keeps going.

Photo: (Courtesy of Graham Holtshausen)
Photo: (Courtesy of Graham Holtshausen)

Suffice it to say, that when we get the space to start, we are hoping for a design that simply drips with food all year round. Of course, in the beginning, there will need to be legumes in abundance. We want to invigorate the soil, and our fruit trees will need a lot of good, quick mulching to keep them fed and happy. In other words, as excited as we are about all the fruit, nuts and spices coming our way, we’ve been keeping our eyes open for what legumes are around.

It’s no great surprise that there are plenty, and because this is the type of information I’ve shared often with other people, I figured it might be nice to compile a brief reference list. These are all perennial legumes that we are hoping to use at the beginning of our food forest, and many of them we hope will remain as useful food and fodder components once the fruit trees are rolling.

Moringa

Photo: Moringa (Courtesy of Forest and Kim Starr)
Photo: Moringa (Courtesy of Forest and Kim Starr)

Moringa is amongst my favorite legume trees. It grows super fast, several meters in a year. It can either be a 10-meter tree or coppiced to be used for food (the leaves, pods and flowers), as well as for nutrient enhancing mulch. Moringa will also grow from cuttings, so it’s possible to multiply the supply every time it’s cut back. It’s drought tolerant and thrives both in dry and wet tropical climates, though it doesn’t take well to a freeze. As a food, its leaves are highly nutritious, with tons of iron, protein, vitamins, minerals, etc—the tree is being used to combat malnutrition.

Madre de Cacao

Photo: Madre de Cacao (Courtesy of Forest and Kim Starr)
Photo: Madre de Cacao (Courtesy of Forest and Kim Starr)

We hadn’t heard of this madre de cacao until living here in Belize. It’s all over the show, and it makes for some great chop-and-drop mulch, as well as living fence posts (this one roots if it is put in the ground). I even built a living compost bin out of it. This tree is native to the area, and it has been part of the Mayan culture for centuries, used especially for its medicinal qualities and, of course, aiding and shading the super valuable cacao trees. Again, it grows fast and regenerates even more quickly, so it’s a perfect start to a food forest. A full tree will stretch up a good twelve meters.

Pigeon Pea

 Photo: Pigeon Pea (Courtesy of Forest and Kim Starr)

Photo: Pigeon Pea (Courtesy of Forest and Kim Starr)

We first dabbled with pigeon peas in Panama, where they are called guandul and are probably the favorite legume, often served at breakfast. The pigeon pea plants in Panama were quite small size, more bush-like than tree, but I’ve since seen some that hit the five-meter mark easily. These will be a grand part of our design, as we hope that, while they are enriching the soil, they’ll also be giving a staple harvest of peas—something similar to field peas—for the long haul. They can also get nice and bushy and be coppiced for mulch after harvesting. We had huge success growing these in Panama, so hopefully, it’ll be the same here in Belize.

Ice Cream Bean

Photo: Ice Cream Bean (Courtesy of Tatters)
Photo: Ice Cream Bean (Courtesy of Tatters)

Yet another legume that will be something we hope will remain in the forest is the ice cream bean, providing a delicious treat for years to come. This is a tree we hear mentioned quite a bit in videos about building food forests, so it’s one that we’ll be happy to include, both for the food and the fixing. The fruit is delicious, a la vanilla ice cream, and the seeds are also edible. It’s fast-growing, nitrogen-fixing and almost too easy to cultivate (they are a bit weedy). The trees grow into the canopy at 30 meters tall. It can be chopped for mulch a couple of times a year, but this of course will mean no fruit.

Tamarind

Photo: Tamarind (Courtesy of Tatters)
Photo: Tamarind (Courtesy of Tatters)

Another high-flying leguminous tree with a delicious fruit to enjoy is the tamarind. This one, however, grows slowly, but it is also very acclimatized to the dry cycles of many tropical climates and does fine in semi-arid conditions. It also doesn’t demand much of the soil. Ultimately, a full size tree can provide up to 150 kilos of fruit annually. The fruit is makes nice preserves, chutney, candy and drinks. Most of the chopping and dropping will occur early on in pruning the young tree to have only a few major branches growing.

Without a doubt, there are others that could be listed, but these hold special reservations for being part of our initial and long-term design. We hope to eat moringa leaves daily. We hope to build living structures with the madre de cacao. Pigeon peas will be a major source of protein for us. Ice cream beans and tamarind will be great treats to enjoy in their time. And, all of these trees will provide an abundance of organic material for mulching, as well as fertilizing our soil from beneath. I’m excited about all the fruits and other stuff, but I’m equally excited for the legumes to come.

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

5 Comments

  1. Please correct me, i think the picture of the Tamarind tree is different. I know that it has small leaves attached to a main rib.

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