Artocarpus altilis collage of leaf, fruit and flower The Botanical magazine, or, Flower-garden displayed. London : Printed for W. Curtis by S. Couchman, 1793-1801.

Breadfruit to the rescue


Cover image for Dec 29, 2010

Agriculture / In Hana, there is always something growing that smells luscious and tastes delicious, but that doesn’t mean we get to pick and eat our neighbors’ bananas or liliko’i or pomelo just because our stomachs are growling and our mouths watering.

The community honor code is to either politely ask for a snack from the tree or wait until the gardener’s gift of aloha invariably turns up on our porch, because there is so much to share there is no need to beg for a healthy handout. This past holiday season I came home from errands to find cardboard boxes and recycled plastic bags of ripe bananas, juicy citrus, buttery avocados and crisp salad fixin’s piled on the back stoop, reminding me of my Missouri mother’s admonition to “lock the car” during zucchini season.

But recently I had to keep reminding myself “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s ‘ulu’ as I drove daily past a long-vacant house. In front, next to the road, an ancient breadfruit tree was dropping copious amounts of one of the tropic’s most versatile and nutritious foods, many going SPLAT! and wasted on the asphalt.

As the prolific tree continued to produce giant green orbs the temptation to pilfer “just a few” for a coconut curry soup almost overcame me. Then one morning I saw a new hand-lettered sign: “DO NOT PICK OUR ’ULU!” It was a stern reminder to potential breadfruit snatchers that even if the homeowners were away, their ohana was gleaning fruit to feed an extended family.

The next day, my ‘ulu prayers were answered when I saw a dozen of them lined up on the rock wall fronting St. Mary’s Catholic Church in “downtown” Hana, a Samaritan’s gift to passers-by. And sure enough, a week before Christmas, an unknown elf graced my back porch with a bulging brown paper bag sticky with white breadfruit sap.

Because breadfruit trees have grown around Hana long before anyone can remember, probably brought by voyaging Polynesians who first landed canoes on East Maui’s windward coast, it is fitting that the Breadfruit Institute, a program of the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hana and on Kauai, was established here in 2003.

Now, less than a decade later, the Breadfruit Institute and its commercial partner, San Diego-based Global Breadfruit, a subsidiary of Cultivaris, are preparing to ship tens of thousands of healthy young ‘ulu plants in 2011. The baby trees will be exported to at least three continents and numerous islands, at their request, where hopefully they will grow quickly into mature trees bearing low-fat fruits full of carbohydrates, nutrients, vitamins and minerals.

This ambitious initiative to feed hungry people throughout the tropics began three decades ago in Hana when 30 trees were planted in the organically and culturally rich soil of NTBG’s 464-acre Kahanu Garden and Pi`ilanihaleheiau, Polynesia’s largest ancient worship site.

In 1985 and 1987, University of Hawaii-Manoa graduate student Diane Ragone collected 400 breadfruit samples throughout the Pacific islands. A third of the root suckers and root sections she shipped back to Honolulu survived.

Hired two years later to work for NTBG on Kauai, she planted these trees at Kahanu Garden for long-term conservation and to study the sustainability of breadfruit. Of the 190 three-foot-tall trees she shipped to Maui on a barge, all but three survived transplanting to become the core of the collection.

“In 1996, I went to Micronesia and Pohnpei to do ethno-botanical research and came upon incredible breadfruit agroforests that were at least a thousand years old,” said Ragone, now director of the Breadfruit Institute. “I realized those sustainable agricultural systems had enormous potential to create watersheds, provide food, and offer habitat to birds and animals in deforested countries such as Haiti and in West Africa.

“That’s when I started focusing exclusively on breadfruit. Along with its potential to feed millions of hungry people, I discovered that since my trip less than a decade earlier, hurricanes, tsunamis, changes in the culture and deforestation had caused some of my earlier sample varieties to go extinct on their home islands.

“My goals were to save as many varieties as we could to make this a conservation collection to be studied and used, and to find out if we could produce breadfruit year-round. If we could, the potential for a long-term, sustainable agriculture system was tremendous.”

Trustees of the NTBG system created the Breadfruit Institute to help Ragone push forward with her initiative. By then she had traveled to more than 50 Pacific islands over two decades, gathering specimens that now make up the world’s largest breadfruit collection — 265 trees representing 120 varieties in the 10-acre Hana orchard.

But the biggest breadfruit conundrum remained: how to speed up inefficient and labor-intensive traditional cultivation methods. In 2004, Ragone partnered with Canadian researcher Dr. Susan Murch of the University of British Columbia at Okanagan. Together they led their teams to an in-vitro tissue culture propagation breakthrough that yields “disease-free, healthy and strong plants that can be cheaply and quickly cloned into millions of identical plants,” Ragone said.

With offices in Germany and California and a solid track record of introducing new agriculture products into the global marketplace, Cultivaris was chosen by the institute in 2008 to be its commercial arm.

“We needed a private sector partner to produce the plants on a large scale because we do not have the resources or time in Hana,” said Ragone, who hired the Institute’s first fulltime collection manager and curator in Hana, Ian Cole, just last June.

“Sending root material was not a viable way” to reproduce breadfruit on a massive scale. With Global Breadfruit’s tissue culture reproduction, marketing savvy, and international shipping expertise, she said, the baby trees “are all clones that conceivably could go anywhere in the world where breadfruit can grow in the environment.”

Ragone says the Institute’s partnerships are “a win-win-win for all of us.”

“Since 1990 I’d been getting requests from around the world for varieties from our collection so in 2007 the Institute invited 50 people to the first breadfruit symposium.

“They came from the South Pacific, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa and North America. They gave great papers and were all enthusiastic about the potential of this really nutritious, easy to grow food that doesn’t require a lot of labor and is easy to prepare.”

With quick, inexpensive and easy cloning of breadfruit plants now a reality and its commercial partner ready to launch worldwide sales, the institute is now entering into agreements to share revenues with countries that provided Ragone’s original specimens.

“We get a fee from Global Breadfruit for every plant they sell, and that money will come back to support the institute,” Ragone said. “We are also entering into a memorandum of understanding with countries of origin and splitting our share of sales revenue 50-50 to recognize where these breadfruit varieties came from.

“Samoa’s agreement with us is that its share of the money will be directed to its Department of Agriculture to help farmers. Other countries are putting their share into a general fund. If we could get a planting project going in Haiti, that would be terrific.

“Breadfruit can give us all a lot of bang for the buck.”

World Hunger chart

Total number of Hungry People 2001–2009:The world population is 6.7 billion. In 2009 the number of hungry people passed the 1 billion mark for the first time. One in seven people don’t get enough food to eat every day.

Breadfruit: a history

Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) is a subsistence staple crop throughout Oceania, except for New Zealand and Easter Island where the climate is too cold. Its ancestral form was native to New Guinea and perhaps in Indonesia’s Molucca Islands and the Philippines.

Dr. Diane Ragone, a leading expert on the species and director of the Breadfruit Institute ([]), said the tree known as ‘ulu in Hawaii was first domesticated in the western Pacific and originally was spread by voyaging humans throughout Polynesia beginning about 3,000 years ago. Simultaneously, their ancient eastern Indonesian cousins carried the plant west and north through insular and coastal Southeast Asia.

When European explorers ventured into the Pacific Ocean in the late 1700s and 1800s, a Tahitian variety of breadfruit was transplanted to Jamaica and St. Vincent, and a Tongan strain to Martinique. Ultimately, those breadfruit types migrated to Central and South America, Africa, India, islands in the Indian Ocean, and into northern Australia. Breadfruit also is found in south Florida.

British naturalist Sir Joseph Banks realized the value of breadfruit as a dietary staple when he sailed to Tahiti with Captain James Cook aboard the Endeavor in 1789. At the time, colonial plantation owners in the Caribbean were looking for a cheap, prolific, high-energy food to feed to slaves who worked their land. As president of the Royal Society, Banks offered a gold medal and a cash prize as reward for successfully transporting breadfruit to Britain’s tropical colonies as a food source.

In 1787, Captain William Bligh was appointed by the Royal Navy, at Banks’ encouragement to be the commanding lieutenant of the HMS Bounty on its voyage to the South Pacific to bring back a thousand potted breadfruit plants to satisfy demand.

Bligh’s crew spent five months gathering specimens before departing Tahiti for home, but a month later his crew mutinied and set him and 18 loyalists adrift in a small boat. Miraculously, Bligh and his companions survived to sail a longboat nearly 5,000 miles to Timor, from which they were rescued and returned to England.

In 1791, Blight commanded a second expedition to collect live breadfruit plants, and successfully ferried them to St. Helena in the Atlantic Ocean, and to the West Indies.

The Royal Society presented Bligh with its medal and cash reward for his efforts; West Indian slaves of British colonists for whom the transplanted breadfruit was intended initially refused to eat it. Today it is a beloved food throughout the Caribbean.

Note: Corrections were made to correct misspellings and scientific information.