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The versatile breadfruit tree
Horticulture with Ranil Senanayake - Daily Mirror Thu May 20 2004

Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) belongs to the family Moraceae (fig family) and is represented by about 50 species. The common name breadfruit refers to trees bearing seedless varieties and the name breadnut refers to seeded varieties.

They are both varieties of the same species. Breadfruit is considered to be native to the Malay Archipelago region but has been distributed by humans and cultivated since pre-history in Malaya, the Caribbean, Hawaii and Polynesia.

The breadfruit tree grows to over 18 meters. The trunk often branches early but becomes very robust attaining a diameter of one meter. It is a quick growing, evergreen, spreading tree with a well-formed crown and very striking leaves.

The leaves can be 60cm wide, and are deeply cut into four to 12 pointed lobes. They are of firm texture; dark green in colour, glossy on the upper surface, with conspicuous yellow veins and the underside is covered with minute stiff hairs.

Breadfruit grows best in deep, well-drained soils, in the humid lowlands, with a temperature range between 21-32C where they begin to bear fruit at three to six years old, eventually yielding up to 700 fruits per annum. In Sri Lanka the trees flourish in the wet and intermediate zones up to an elevation to about 6000 meters (2000 ft).

The tree bears separate male and female flowers on the same tree. The male flowers, which appear first, look very unlike a flower as they are tiny and densely set on a drooping or club-shaped spike, around 30 cm in length. The female flowers which follow are massed together in a rounded head, which develops into the compound fruit. The fruit is in reality made up of multiple fruits fused together. The fruit can be circular or oval and may be up to five to seven inches long by about three to four inches in diameter, pea green in colour attaining a slight yellowish flush when mature.

The fruits are produced in twos and threes at the ends of the branches. They have a white or pale yellow flesh. The breadfruit is a staple source of carbohydrate in many tropical countries, made more attractive by its high levels of vitamins, especially A and B.

In Jamaica, Puerto Rico and the South Pacific, fallen male flower spikes are boiled, peeled and eaten as vegetables or are candied by re-cooking, for two to three hours, in syrup then rolled in powdered sugar and sun-dried.

The pulp of both the seeded and unseeded varieties which when boiled or roasted is comparable to cooked bread dough. It is used in curries and ground into flour. The seeds of seeded varieties are edible and are roasted or curried. In flavour they are reminiscent of chestnuts.

Livestock eats the leaves of the breadfruit and the latex extracted from the bark of the tree is mixed with boiled coconut oil and is used as a caulking paint for boats. The wood from the tree is also useful and used to make furniture,

In Trinidad and the Bahamas a mixture of the breadfruit leaf in food or tea is given to lower blood pressure and is also said to relieve asthma. Ashes of the burned leaves are used for skin infections. Toasted flowers are rubbed on the gums around an aching tooth. Its introduction to the West Indies is associated with the now famous 'Mutiny on the Bounty'' in 1817. The mutiny occurred when a Cornish sea captain named William Bligh attempted to transport over 1000 breadfruit seedlings from the South Pacific Island of Tahiti to the West Indies. The breadfruit was identified as a tree with high potential to provide plenty of carbohydrates for the African slaves working in the West Indies.

The seeded varieties are reproduced by seedlings and the seedless varieties by root suckers or air layering.

(Part of the plant series by Rainforest Rescue International facilitated by Lake House Investments Ltd.)