The Breadfruit

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November, 2000: Western Pacific

The western Pacific (especially New Guinea) is the center for both the origin and diversity of the seeded, wild-type varieties of breadfruit. Through selective breeding, these seeded wild types most likely gave rise to the seedless and few-seeded varieties that occur in the Pacific Islands and are widely distributed throughout the tropics. As a multipurpose tree crop, breadfruit has many ethnobotanical and commercial applications.

 

Artocarpus altilis in fruit. (Photo courtesy of Nyree Conard Zerega.)

 

The breadfruit, Artocarpus altilis, is in the Moraceae family. This dicot grows to about 20 meters and has smooth bark. Latex is present in all its parts. The leaves are thick and dark green, with pinnate venation. Leaf dissection, even on the same tree, can vary from almost entire to deeply lobed. The pollination syndrome is still being investigated, but the Old World fruit bat is known to be an important disperser. (The Old World fruit bats, called "frugavores," are in the family Pteropodidae and the order Chiroptera.) The flowers of breadfruit are monoecious, meaning that male and female flowers occur separately on the same tree. The male inflorescence emerges first, with the female flowers emerging shortly after. The female flowers are receptive to pollen 3 days after their emergence. The resulting multiple fruit is derived from 1,500 to 2,000 flowers and develops mainly from the persistent perianth. Each disk of the rind of the fruit is the surface of an individual flower.

The fruit of the breadfruit tree is a nutritious and starchy staple crop for many areas of the Pacific and Caribbean. Nutritional analysis reveals that the starchy breadfruit is also a relatively good source of iron, calcium, potassium, riboflavin, and niacin. The nutritional composition of breadfruit varies, depending on the method of preparation. For example, the phosphorus content is 34—79 mg/100g in fresh breadfruit, 42—91 mg/100g when roasted, and 27—38 mg/100g when boiled. Other preparation methods include sun-drying, fermenting (called "madrai" in the Pacific), and making into a paste (called "paka kuur"). The fruit can also be sliced and fried into chips or made into flour.

Because the trees bear much more fruit than can be consumed fresh, they are preserved in the form of chips, flour, and paste or by a method called "pit-fermentation." In Sri Lanka, for example, the sliced fruits are dipped in salt water, boiled for 5 minutes, and dried in the sun for 4 to 6 hours. This preserved form keeps 8 to 10 months. Since about 1974, Jamaica has produced sliced breadfruit canned in brine for local and export markets. Within the past few years, freezing, freeze-drying, and other preservation methods have been explored in order to make breadfruit available on a year-round, worldwide commercial scale. The 25% of the fruit that is not consumed by humans (the core, stem, and skin) is used as animal feed.

 

Storage or serving bowl made from Artocarpus altilis wood. (Photo courtesy of Nyree Conard Zerega.)

Breadfruit tapa, bark cloth made from the inner bark of Artocarpus altilis. (Photo courtesy of Nyree Conard Zerega.)

 

In addition to providing food for humans and animals, Artocarpus has many other uses. The timber is used in homes, canoes, furniture, storage containers, and ornamental wood carvings as well as for firewood. The latex found throughout the plant is used to capture birds in traps and is mixed with coconut oil to trap houseflies. The latex is also used medicinally as a massage ointment to treat broken bones, sprains, and bruises. The latex and mashed leaves are often used to treat fungal infections, indicating that this mixture may have antimicrobial properties. In the West Indies, the leaf is collected when yellow and brewed into a tea to reduce high blood pressure and control diabetes. The inner bark, or "bast," is used to make a cloth known as "tapa." Tapa has ceremonial and ritual uses, and is made into bedding, robes, and other articles of clothing. The bast is also used to make nets and harnesses. The bark has exhibited cytotoxic activity in bioassays against leukemia. Both the bark and the roots show antimicrobial activity and potential as anti-tumor agents.

The male inflorescences of Artocarpus are collected, candied, and eaten. They also have been burned as a mosquito repellent, or toasted and applied topically to relieve toothaches. Additionally, the inflorescences yield a yellow or brown dye.

Despite its many uses, the breadfruit tree remains a subsistence crop rather than a commercial one. However, since much of the area where this plant thrives is economically depressed, commercial export of the breadfruit may be a saving grace as its commercial value is realized globally.

References, Websites, and Further Reading

http://www.hawaii-nation.org/canoe/ulu.html Plants of ancient Hawaii, such as "ukli," the breadfruit

http://www.batcon.org Bat Conservation International (BCI)

Stern, Introductory Plant Biology, 8th Edition
Chapter 2: The Nature of Life
Carbohydrates, pp. 22—23

Chapter 4: Tissues
Cork cambium and bark, p. 53

Chapter 6: Stems
Bark, p. 91
Latex, pp. 92—93
Venation types, fig. 7.4, p. 109

Chapter 8: Flowers, Fruits, and Seeds
Perianth, table 8.1–differences between dicots and monocots, p. 130
Inflorescence types, fig. 8.7, p. 131
Multiple fruits, p. 134
Osage orange, a multiple fruit in the same family as Artocarpus (Moraceae), fig. 8.13, p. 136

Chapter 23: Flowering Plants
Pollination, p. 421
Monoecious, p. 425
Pollination ecology, pp. 425—30

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