The Breadfruit Tree
by Veronica S.
Kaha'i, The Grandson
Its beauty stands out in any garden, grove, or yard.
Easily 40-60 feet tall, with branches spanning a similar-size
diagonally, the sensual, dark-green lobed leaves of
the breadfruit tree form a graceful tapestry from which
sexy, lime-green globes, weighing up to 10 pounds each,
dangle gracefully in the Hawaiian trades.
Ulu, as it is named in Hawaiian, was one of the few
subsistence plants the Polynesians brought with them
when they sailed to the Hawaiian Islands. It never became
a staple food as it was on islands further south. Taro
played that role. Even so, ulu's mythical origins, its
fame in history, and its immense usefulness to islanders
have made the tree an immortal symbol of Hawaii Nei.
Member of the fig family, Artocarpis Altilis (breadfruit)
is believed to have originated in Java. Voyagers took
it to Malaysia and, in the 14th century, to the Marquesas,
where it spread to the rest of Polynesia. For many the
nutrition-packed, starchy fruit became the staff of
Ulu¹s reputation was so wide spread that in the
18th century rumor reached England, busy with its colonies,
about the superstrong islanders who sustained themselves
on a pure ulu diet. The British discussed the prospect
of breadfruit being used as a way to fuel up the African
slaves in the British West-Indies and sent out an expedition
to acquire the ulu. In 1787, Captain Bligh and his Bounty
set sail for Tahiti and gathered over one thousand ulu
shoots to be transported back to the Caribbean. But
plants need water and it was not long before they had
soaked up more than their fair share of the precious
drinking water on board the boat. Bligh, who was not
an easy captain, rationed the water away from his crew.
When his men reached the end of their tolerance they
put Bligh and his loyalists adrift. After which, the
breadfruit starters were also flung into sea.
The Hawaii ulu, or breadfruit.
Against the odds, Captain Bligh and his men survived.
And made another attempt at transport in 1793. This
time the ulu reached the Caribbean, but now the slaves
refused to eat this foreign food. Only years after abolition
did the Caribbean people adopt the breadfruit as food.
Back in early Polynesian time, breadfruit had reached
the Hawaiian islands near 750 AD, and over the centuries
contributed quietly to just about everything the Hawaiians
needed to survive. The trunk was used to make surf boards,
drums, canoe parts, poi boards and wood for house and
furniture construction. The inner bark lent itself as
a second-grade tapa cloth. Leaf sheaths, like the finest
of abrasives, polished utensils, bowls, or kukui nuts
used for leis. The young buds were a medicine for mouth
and throat. The white sticky sap became glue, caulking,
chewing gum, or medicine. As bird lime it caught the
colorful birds with their coveted feathers. And of course
breadfruit filled the stomach of many Hawaiian.
The legendary origin of such an invaluable plant was
contributed by the war-god Kuka'ilimoku. During a time
of famine, he buried himself in the ground to emerge
again as a healthy breadfruit tree. "Eat some,
feed our kids," he told his mortal wife and subsequently
saved his family from starvation.
There is a saying in Hawaii: "Look for the oozing
breadfruit": Do what Ku's wife did. Marry someone
who always makes sure you have food.
If you are lucky enough to find a breadfruit, savor
this ancient Hawaiian treasure. Or celebrate the immortal
ulu in the Hawaiian quilt, where, in timeless works
of art, its dramatic outline celebrates the survival
of the Hawaiian people. Through the great god Ku.
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appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and
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