The breadfruit tree is a species of flowering tree in the mulberry and jackfruit family. It is believed to be a domesticated descendent of a tree originating in New Guinea, the Maluku Islands and the Philippines. It was later spread throughout the vast Pacific by voyaging islanders.
It later found its way to the Hawaiian Islands — where it is called the ulu tree — hundreds of years before western contact was made with the islands. The tree became a large part of the cultural and spiritual life of the ancient Hawaiians who had successfully populated the islands.
Eventually, the trees were widely planted in a variety of tropical regions, including lowland Central America, northern South America, and the Caribbean.
The fruit of this tree is called breadfruit because the moderately ripe fruit, when baked or cooked, is similar to freshly baked bread and has a potato-like flavor. Today, this prolific tree has hundreds of known varieties with fruits ranging from dark green and weighing as much as a watermelon, to lavender-colored and apple-sized. Its large fruits have been a long time staple food in the South Pacific and other tropical areas.
Breadfruit trees are one of the highest yielding food plants known. Depending on conditions, a single tree can produce as many as 50 to 150 fruits per year. Breadfruit trees can grow to a height of 85 feet.
All parts of the tree yield a latex sap which is useful as a sealant for such things as caulking for a canoe. Its light, sturdy lumber has been used for canoe outriggers, furniture, and home construction.
The breadfruit is very nutritious, gluten free, high in carbohydrates and can be consumed at all stages of development. As the fruit ripens, the starches it contains convert to sugars and the flesh softens to a custard-like consistency. It is seldom eaten raw, but usually roasted, baked, boiled, fried or dried and ground into flour. Fallen fruits, as well as the leaves of the tree, can be used as nutritious animal feed.
Europeans discovered the breadfruit tree during their voyages of exploration and trade in the 1500s. They were both amazed and delighted by a tree that could produce so much edible starchy food. As you will read about in another column, the breadfruit tree was also responsible for a very infamous event in British sailing history.
Larrie Stone is a retired Dana College science professor.