A bean tree can refer to any number of trees that produce pods that resemble beans or contain beans. One such tree is the Catalpa tree, which is often referred to as the Indian Bean Tree. There are actually northern and southern versions of this tree and both are native to the United States. The northern catalpa tree had heart-shaped leaves, white flowers, and long, slender, pods, for which it received the bean tree name. The southern version of the Indian Bean Tree is smaller and it has light purple flowers. It is the best choice if you want to use the Catalpa as a landscape tree. Native Americans used the bark and leaves from the tree for medicinal purposes.
Another type of bean tree is the Tonka Bean Tree. Most North Americans are unfamiliar with this particular tree. That’s because it is a tropical tree that grows in South America and produces pod-type fruit. All of the pods have black seeds commonly used for a flavoring.
The Carob Bean Tree might be a tree that has been heard about by more people. That’s because carob beans and carob products are available in most health food stores. It is often called “the healthy person’s chocolate.“ The carob bean tree is a member of the legume (pea) family of plants. It produces no fruit at all for the first fifteen years, but then it produces pods for the rest of its life.
Carob pods look like broad green beans when growing and then turn a shiny brown color when ready to harvest. They are between four and ten inches long and weigh three-fourths of an ounce to an ounce and a half. Every pod contains four series of holes that have seeds. The carob seed looks similar to a watermelon seed, and each pod can have up to fifteen seeds. Both seeds and pods can be eaten. It is the ground-up seeds which are used for a chocolate substitute.
Pods from the carob bean tree are sweet so require less sugar in recipes or can be used as a sugar substitute. They also do not have caffeine or theobromine--stimulants found in chocolate. Carob powder is used as a food stabilizer and as a thickener, known as locust bean gum. And that leads to another interesting association--the carob bean tree has grown for centuries in the Middle East and is also known as the locust bean tree. Another name for the carob pods is St. John’s Bread, because Biblical scholars believe that it is the food that sustained John the Baptist in the wilderness.
People who prefer to stick with real chocolate can have their own bean tree too. The tree from which chocolate is produced is known as a cocoa tree or a chocolate bean tree. The chocolate bean tree requires very warm temperatures and is only grown in Africa, Asia, South America and Central America, close to the equator. It can grow to be as tall as 50 feet but usually is underneath the cover of much taller trees--200 foot hardwoods. The cocoa bean tree requires lots of shade to produce fruit, but once it has, it can produce up to 150 years.
The fruit of the tree are long oval pods that can grow up to fifteen inches long. They have a football-type shape and they grow directly on the trunk of the tree, not on stems or branches likes apples and oranges.
There are not very many varieties of bean trees, because most beans grow on bushes, poles or vines. But, bean trees, as a member of the legume family, will always produce a pod with some kind of edible fruit.