Breadfruit, ulu (Artocarpus altilis)

MORACEAE, Mulberry Family

The breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) is an easily recognized tree (8-18 m tall) with large, dark green leathery leaves and milky latex. It is now found throughout the lowland tropical areas of the world, but is probably a native of the East Indies. Its fruit is a large, spherical to oblong fleshy organ (up to 30 cm in diameter), which is actually a multiple fruit or "sorosis," formed from a female inflorescence having hundreds of small flowers. Breadfruit is monoecious. Normally, people do not think about breadfruit for purposes of construction, but wood of the breadfruit tree also has been used to make surfboards, hula drums, and specific parts of ocean-going canoes, and its inner bark (phloem) has been made into tapa cloth.

A green, unripe breadfruit, which weighs several kilograms, contains 30-40% starch and is rich in vitamin B. As breadfruit becomes ripe, starch is converted into sugar, and the fruit then also becomes rich in vitamin C. The green (unripe), starchy multiple fruit can be eaten baked, boiled, or fried after milky sap is bled off and the fruit is peeled and cored, and the edible flesh resembles that of a potato in taste and consistency. In most cases, this starchy food is used as a substitute for taro (Colocasia esculenta) or sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas). Ripe breadfruit may be incorporated into dishes that need sweet fruits, including dessert pies, cakes, and sauces. Thus, breadfruit is a very important part of native diets in the Pacific Basin. In New Guinea and Melanesia, the seeded form, called breadnut, is the source of seeds that are roasted or boiled, and tastes like a chestnut (Castanea). However, in most other regions, especially Polynesia and Micronesia, the flesh of seedless forms (aborted ovules) is the principal food.

When Captain Cook visited Tahiti in 1769, he and his crew were introduced to this fruit. Joseph Banks and his botanist on that voyage, Solander, raved about this plant after returning to England, and some nobility saw this as a plant with great potential in the British West Indies, where it could be used to feed the slaves who worked the sugar cane fields. Sir Joseph Banks urged King George III of England to introduce breadfruit to the West Indies, and in 1787 the King dispatched Captain William Bligh on the H.M.S. Bounty to accomplish that goal. The Bounty reached Tahiti in 1788, and the crew spent six months there collecting and propagating plants for shipment. During their prolonged stay, the crew members married Tahitian girls, and they were understandably upset when they were forced to sail for the West Indies. After leaving Tahiti on April 4, 1789, with 1015 breadfruit plants, Captain Bligh was overpowered in a mutiny, and as a result he and 18 others were cast adrift in a longboat. No one expected the outcasts to survive, but they landed 41 days later on Timor, a Dutch island 5000 kilometers to the west without losing a single member. Meanwhile, the mutineers, led by officer Fletcher Christian, retrieved their wives on Tahiti and then settled on the desolate Pitcairn Island, where they attempted to set up a utopian society, which soon failed. (A descendent of that mutiny crew still lives on Pitcairn Island.) A subsequent and successful breadfruit expedition was carried out by the British Admiralty later in that century (1791-1793). However, after breadfruit finally made it to Kingstown, Jamaica and St. Vincent, the black slaves refused to eat breadfruit.

One seldom appreciated fact about breadfruit is that the latex is extremely sticky. Latex of breadfruit therefore has been used as a glue of objects and formerly was smeared on branches to entrap birds, whose feet and feathers get stuck, to capture food and gather their prized feathers. Utensils will become clogged if the latex is still liquid. The solidified latex was used as chewing gum. Liquid latex produces the sheen on tapa cloth. It is also said that to avoid staining hands with this latex, the person should coat the skin with cooking oil, and avoid getting milky sap on clothes, from which it will permanently stain.

A close cousin of the breadfruit is the jackfruit, Artocarpus heterophyllus, which is very sweet and strongly acidic. Experts believe that this species is native to India, where the plant is heavily cultivated, but this fruit is particularly popular in very poor tropical areas, such as Brazil and in the East Indies. There is currently much interest in using this plant for many different purposes.

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