The botanical name for a breadfruit tree is Artocarpus altilis. It’s a member of the fig family that thrives in tropical regions. Scholars believe breadfruit originated in New Guinea, and that it has been cultivated and consumed for more than 3,000 years.
As Polynesian people settled the Pacific islands, they brought the fruit with them, as it’s a hardy, high yielding, easy to care for tree. Artocarpus altilis can grow up to 80 feet tall, turning out hundreds of fruit per tree. The trees produce fruits year around with two or three prolific cycles. Each fruit can weigh up to six pounds and get as big around as a soccer ball.
Boiled, baked, roasted or fried breadfruit is low in saturated fat and loaded with fiber, carbohydrates, and vitamin C. It’s also a good source of calcium, iron, and potassium.
Breadfruit should not be confused with its cousins: jackfruit and breadnut. Although they look similar and are prepared in much the same way, the trees have different scientific classifications. In Puerto Rico the breadfruit is called panapén.
A Fruit with A Purpose
In the Caribbean during colonization, Britain’s wealth lay in sugar production that depended on cheap slave labor for cultivation. Most of the food and provisions were imported from the North American colonies. However, the American Revolutionary War all but stopped the flow of goods.
The islands were small, and planters were disinclined to take land out of sugar production to grow food for slaves. Planters needed a cheap prolific source was needed. In 1787, the Admiralty backed an expedition to Tahiti with the purpose of procuring breadfruit seedlings and bringing them to the botanical gardens in St. Vincent and Jamaica where they could be reproduced and distributed to planters. The assignment went to the HMS Bounty, commanded by Lt. William Bligh.
The Infamous Mutiny
Due to weather, Bligh and his ship arrived late in the season for transplanting breadfruit seedlings. The crew had to wait six months. During this time, many of the crew grew fond of life in Tahiti and didn't want to leave. Some even went as far as taking wives. That, coupled with Bligh’s increasing harsh treatment over the crew, led to bad blood and high tensions. The HMS Bounty set sail on April 5, 1789.
23 days later, on April 28, mutineers cast Bligh and eighteen loyal crewmen adrift in a 23-foot open launch boat. They tossed the breadfruit seedlings overboard and sailed away. After a heroic journey, about one and a half months, and 3,618 nautical miles Bligh landed on the island of Timor. He didn't make it back to England to report the mutiny until March 15, 1790.
Failure is Not an Option
The Admiralty ordered Bligh to sail back to Tahiti, this time with two ships – the HMS Providence and Assistant. This mission was successful and mutiny-free. St. Vincent Botanical Garden and Bath Botanical Garden in Jamaica accepted their breadfruit trees, 677 total trees, in 1793. Descendants from the original specimens can still be seen in these gardens today. Bligh also delivered some specimens to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in England.
A Fruit in Crisis
Since 1793, breadfruit has been a part of the Caribbean diet. However, despite it’s epic journey, breadfruit experienced a cool reception. The slaves favored plantains and cassavas over the unfamiliar fruit.
Hurricanes, land development, and changes in diet have led to the decline of breadfruit tree populations. Still, throughout the main growing season of July through October, breadfruit can be found on menus across the islands.
Fear not its demise. One breadfruit tree has the potential to feed many people and could help feed the world’s population. This possibility hasn't been overlooked. Organizations, such as Trees That Feed Foundation, are helping to preserve, research, and propagate the trees, as well as educate the public.