“If a man plant ten breadfruit trees in his life, which he can do in about an hour, he would completely fulfil his duty to his own as well as future generations.” (Joseph Banks, 1769)
Banks had been on the Endeavour with Captain Cook on his first voyage to the South Pacific in 1768-1771. William Bligh was part of the Cook’s crew on its third voyage when it made contact with Hawaiʻi in 1778.
Bligh later captained the Bounty on a voyage to gather breadfruit trees from Tahiti and take them to Jamaica in the Caribbean. There, the trees would be planted to provide food for slaves.
Bligh didn’t make it back on the Bounty, his crew mutinied (April 28, 1789;) one reason for the mutiny was that the crew believed Bligh cared more about the breadfruit than them (he cut water rationing to the crew in favor of providing water for the breadfruit plants.) Bligh’s tombstone, in part, reads he was the “first (who) transplanted the bread fruit tree.”
For thousands of years, Ulu (Breadfruit) was a staple food in Oceania. It is believed to have originated in New Guinea and the Indo-Malay region and was spread throughout the vast Pacific by voyaging islanders.
According to a legend, the chief Kahai brought the breadfruit tree to Hawaiʻi from Samoa in the twelfth century and first planted it at Kualoa, Oʻahu. Only one variety was known in Hawaiʻi, while more than 24 were distinguished by native names in the South Seas. (CTAHR)
It was a canoe crop – one of around 30 plants brought to the Hawaiian Islands by the Polynesians when they first arrived in Hawaiʻi.
“This tree, whose fruit is so useful, if not necessary, to the inhabitants of most of the islands of the South Seas, has been chiefly celebrated as a production of the Sandwich Islands; it is not confined to these alone, but is also found in all the countries bordering on the Pacific Ocean.” (Book of Trees, 1837)
Known as ‘Ulu’ in Hawaiʻi and Samoa, ‘Uru’ is the Tahitian word for the tree, ‘Kuru’ in the Cook Islands, and ‘Mei’ in the Marquesas, Tonga and Gambier Islands, scientifically, it’s known as Artocarpus altilis.
William Dampier, claims credit for giving the fruit its English name, breadfruit. His description of it, from his 1688 Voyage Round the World, notes:
“The Bread-fruit (as we call it) grows on a large Tree, as big and high as our largest Apple trees. It hath a spreading head full of branches, and dark leaves. … When the fruit is ripe it is yellow and soft; and the taste is sweet and pleasant. The Natives of this Island use it for bread: they gather it when full grown, while it is green and hard; then they bake it in an Oven, which scorcheth the rind and makes it black: but they scrape off the outside black crust, and there remains a tender thin crust, and the inside is soft, tender and white like the crumb of a Penny Loaf. There is neither seed nor stone in the inside, but it is all of a pure substance like Bread; it must be eaten new; for if its kept above 24 hours, it becomes dry, and eats harsh and choaky; but ’tis very pleasant before it is too stale. The fruit lasts in season 8 months in the year, during which time the Natives eat no other sort of food of Bread kind.” (Smith)
The breadfruit is multipurpose, it may be eaten ripe as a fruit or under-ripe as a vegetable – it is roasted, baked, boiled, fried, pickled, fermented, frozen, mashed into a puree, and dried and ground into meal or flour.
The Breadfruit Institute at the National Tropical Botanical Garden, Hawai‘i, is engaged in a Global Hunger Initiative to expand plantings of good quality breadfruit varieties in tropical regions. The institute’s director is Diane Ragone, PhD.
More than 80% of the world’s hungry live in tropical and subtropical regions – this is where breadfruit thrives. The trees require little attention or care, producing an abundance of fruit with minimal inputs of labor or materials.
Trees begin to bear fruit in three to five years, producing for many decades. Crop yields are superior to other starchy staples. An average-sized tree will readily produce 100-200 fruit per year.
The Breadfruit Institute manages the world’s largest collection of breadfruit, conserving over 120 varieties. The Institute has developed effective methods to propagate and distribute millions of plants of productive nutrient-rich varieties.
This initiative aims to disseminate breadfruit plants to alleviate hunger and support sustainable agriculture, agroforestry and reforestation in the tropics.
The same can hold true, here at home.
Centuries ago, the Hawaiians recognized breadfruit’s benefit and brought it with them to Hawaiʻi – we can learn from that.
The image shows a drawing of Ulu (breadfruit) by John Ellis, 1775. In addition, I have included other images in a folder of like name in the Photos section on my Facebook and Google+ pages.