Tuesday, October 23, 2012

From Life To Death To Life

Breadfruit. I would be interested to hear what people who never heard of this tree before imagine its fruits to be like. Maybe large tan-colored spheres that taste like Wonder Bread - grab a couple jars of peanut butter and jelly and hit the breadfruit groves for lunchtime deliciousness. Alas, the reality is not as scrumptious. Breadfruit is a fairly substantial fruit, should be cooked before eating and got its name from its underwhelming blandness. Today, breadfruit is actually gaining popularity as a versatile "filler" ingredient since it is able to take on the flavor of whatever seasoning is used in a dish, much like zucchini. It is doubtful, however, that the culinary techniques used today for breadfruit preparation were as fine when it was introduced in the late-1700s (remember, spices were luxuries), and a good helping of the prepared fruit might have ended up tasting/feeling like plain pieces of tofu (roasted) or a bowl of warm, soggy bread (boiled)...yum! (more on that later) Breadfruit has also recently become quite popular because of the tree's quick growth rate and the substantial crops of fruit it can produce, making it a valuable solution for both reforestation and hunger in tropical climates. Native plant advocates, however, have mixed feelings about its use in the Western Hemisphere because of its vigorous growth and potential to displace native plant communities.

Breadfruit just so happens to be the dictionary photograph of "delicious" (from ntbg.org)
The breadfruit tree (Artocarpus altilis) is native to the South Pacific island of Tahiti and was introduced to the Caribbean by Captain William Bligh in 1791. The retrieval of this plant was the objective of his expedition, as there was a high demand for cheap sources of food for British slaves in the Caribbean. A monetary reward for successfully retrieving this plant from Tahiti was offered and Capt. Bligh was game. His first expedition for the plant ended in disaster because of the now-famous "Mutiny on the Bounty," but after remarkably making it back home to England despite significant adversity, he tried the expedition again a couple years later and was successful in bringing the plant halfway around the world to the Caribbean, where it grew excellently. Unfortunately, the slaves refused to eat the fruit once the trees started producing it - what a disappointment! I don't know if it was the taste / texture of the cooked fruit (see descriptions above) or if it was more of a cultural aversion. Regardless, if I was Captain Bligh, I would have been a little upset to hear that all I had gone through was apparently a waste of time (well, at least he got the monetary reward).

William Bligh - breadfruit superfan
We actually happen to have one of these infamous breadfruit trees here in our tropical fruit garden. It was once a very large tree, dominating a good portion of available fruit garden canopy. During the "winter" of 2010, however, temperatures got down into the low-40s during the night for about a week, and this was enough to apparently kill the tree; all the leaves quickly turned brown and dropped. But lo! Life unseen yet remained and tiny shoots began emerging out of the bottom section of the trunk like glorious rays of light piercing through the black clouds of despair that no doubt had been gathering in the minds of Veronika and Joe. The tree was soon cut back to about five feet tall (where the shoots stopped emerging) and this is how I found it when I arrived a couple months later.

The Kona Kai breadfruit tree sprouting from its trunk.
While it was good to see that the tree was still alive, I knew that this was not the ideal way for a tree to grow. The trunk split into two trunks about two feet off the ground (less than ideal in terms of structure) and was beginning to rot at the tops of each of these trunks. In addition, the shoots, even though they were healthy, would not be very stable as they grew larger because of their weak attachments to the sides of these trunks. So after some research and talking with Veronika and Joe to get a better idea of the nature of the tree (a vigorous grower), I made the recommendation to cut the trunk entirely to the ground and then wait for sprouts from the roots to emerge, selecting one of these shoots to become the "new" breadfruit tree since these would have much better health and structure. Understandably, this approach seemed pretty drastic and risky after the near-loss of the tree, so we didn't take action immediately. A couple months after our discussion, we began to see a tiny shoot next to the tree, which you can see in the bottom-right corner of the picture above. This made the decision to cut the main trunk easier, as we could now concretely see that sprouts would indeed emerge from the roots. And so, shortly thereafter:

Breadfruit blood - don't worry, it heals quickly.
After the tree came down, we waited and watched the soil, hoping to see more seedlings emerge. Before long (within a month), we had more than a few healthy sprouts emerge, much to our relief:

And today? We're left with two "seedlings" after we thinned out less-than-ideal specimens and they have become beautiful full-fledged trees about twelve feet tall after only a year and a half of growth. Rates of growth like this are shocking to a northerner and when I ask folks how old they think the largest of the two trees is, the guess is usually 5-10 years old.

Our now-stately breadfruit trees.
We're still debating whether or not to take out one of the trees to leave the other without competition for space and other resources. While this is a practical solution, it's always hard to cut down a beautiful tree. I'll keep you updated and hopefully the next breadfruit post will include harvest and preparation of the legendary fruit, once under-appreciated but now in the spotlight as an integral part of solutions to effectively reforest areas in tropical regions while at the same time ameliorating hunger. Speaking of that, if you're hungry for more information on breadfruit and its value, visit The Breadfruit Institute's website here.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

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