Ulu - The Breadfruit Tree
by Veronica S. Schweitzer
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 life.
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.
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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Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.