Plant of the Month for July – Ulu

  • ‘Ulu quilt from quiltpassions.net – “The beautiful foliage and fruit of the ‘ulu tree have inspired many quilters. (Courtesy photo/quiltpassions.net)

  • The large, deeply lobed leaves of the ulu tree add to its beauty. (Courtesy photos/Diana Duff)

  • Ulu fruits often have streaks of sap on them. When the sap darkens the fruit is ready to pick and eat.

  • This grouping of ulu trees is highly productive at 1,200 elevation. (Diana Duff/Special to West Hawaii Today)

The breadfruit tree, known in Hawaii as ulu, is an excellent choice for a landscape at elevations over 500 feet. It is a lovely large tree that provides an important food crop as well as shade and beauty for your property. Brought here by the Polynesians centuries ago, Hawaiians used its wood for construction, its sap for adhesives and medicines and they burned the dried catkins to repel insects. This multi-use tree is worth planting wherever space allows.

A member of the moraceae or fig family, the English name for ulu likely derives from a translation of its scientific name. Artocarpus altilis is a combination of the Greek words artos for bread, karpos for fruit, as well as the word altilis for fat. That name was probably assigned based on the fragrance and texture of the cooked fruit which resembles baked bread. Also, the over-ripe fruit, often eaten raw, is similar to a sweet bread dough in flavor as well as texture.

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Hawaiian folklore is rich with ulu stories. Chants, proverbs, and tales abound in the culture. One well known ulu legend is about the god Ku. During a period of famine, the story tells how he transformed himself into a breadfruit tree to feed his family. The small root shoots that grew from the tree were then shared, spreading this food-providing tree throughout the Hawaiian islands.

This great story is based on the known fact that ulu is among the highest yielding food trees that grow in the topics. A single tree can produce more than 100 fruits a year with little effort. The trees grow quickly and require little maintenance, fertilizer, or pesticides.

At the time of Captain Cook’s arrival in Hawaii, the native Hawaiian population was cultivating a band of ulu trees at around 800 feet elevation above Kailua-Kona. The band was a half-mile wide and extended 18 miles south. This swath of breadfruit trees provided cultural needs as well as food for numerous local residents. Other important ulu groves were located in North Kohala, Hilo and Puna.

Though native to Polynesia, several ulu varieties were distributed by voyagers in the late 1700s to the Caribbean and other tropical locations. Today, the tree is grown and its fruit consumed in more than 90 countries throughout the tropics.

Modern researchers have found that ulu trees could easily be grown in tropical areas that are subject to recurring famine as a way to mitigate hunger and malnourishment. This research has sparked renewed interest in encouraging people who live in the tropics to grow and cultivate ulu.

In 2003, Dr. Diane Ragone founded the Breadfruit Institute at Kauai’s National Tropical Botanical Garden to promote the conservation, study, and use of breadfruit for food and reforestation. The institute, in collaboration with the Hawaii Homegrown Food Network and several other partners started the Hooulu Ka Ulu Project in 2010. Together they worked at promoting breadfruit research, culture and history here on the Big Island and initiated forums to address food insecurity in Hawaii. More information on their work can be found at the institute’s website breadfruitinstitute@ntbg.org.

Ulu trees grow well in Kona requiring little maintenance beyond occasional pruning to prevent limb breakage and to aid in harvesting. They grow best in a full sun location with a regular water supply. They prefer warm temperatures in moist, fertile soil with good drainage. Their large leaves provide good mulch for the roots and should be left in place.

Breadfruit trees are stately large landscape trees that can grow to 50 feet or more. They have beautiful large, leathery, deeply lobed leaves that can be almost 3 feet long. The distinctive leaf shape has become a tropical design motif that is especially popular in Hawaiian quilt patterns.

The trees usually reach full bearing maturity within five years and will produce an abundance of tasty and nutritious fruit for many years. Ulu fruit is usually round with thin, bumpy, light green skin and is produced year round.

Here in Kona fruiting peaks during the late spring and summer months. Mature, fruit can be picked when green once the latex sap streaks turn brown. Ulu can be baked whole, cut up and steamed or boiled as well as sliced and fried. Fully ripe fruit will often fall from the tree. Its soft, sweet, cream-colored flesh can then be eaten raw, blended into a smoothie or made into a delicious dessert. Recipes for cooking with breadfruit are available at www.ulucookbook.com

Breadfruit is best propagated vegetatively, usually from root shoots. Air layering also works well. Some roots of ulu trees grow just below the soil’s surface, occasionally producing root shots, especially at a wound site. When the shoot is about a foot and a half tall and has developed some roots, it can be detached from the mother plant on either side of the shoot. Once the shoot is growing well on its own, you can transplant it to a new location. Keep the new seedling adequately watered and protected from harsh sun until it is well established.

Breadfruit is relatively disease and pest free. Insects like white fly, scale or mealy bugs have been known to attack plants but are not life threatening and can be easily controlled. Fruit rot can be avoided by picking mature fruit before it ripens fully and removing rotting fruit from the tree or the ground. Root rot can be prevented by maintaining good soil drainage.

Ulu’s large leaves drop regularly providing a thick mulch under the trees that lessens their need for additional fertilization. The mulch not only keeps the soil beneath the trees healthy and moist but also serves to provide padding that can soften the fall for ripe fruit.

Growing an ulu tree will not only add beauty to your landscape but also add an interesting Polynesian vegetable to your table. Most local nurseries will order breadfruit plants for you upon request. If you have trouble finding ‘ulu trees, call Margo from Sunrise Nursery at 640-9191.

Diana Duff is a plant adviser, educator and consultant living in a dryland forest north of Kailua-Kona.

Gardening Events

Monday: Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers Monthly Meeting from 7 to 9 p.m. at West Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers office 81-6393 Mamalahoa Highway in Kealakekua. White wooden building on makai side across from the Department of Transportation yard. Park in front or on the north side. For more information contact Brian Lievens President West Hawaii Chapter at 895-8753 or greenwizard@hawaii.rr.com

Saturday: “Work Day at Amy Greenwell Garden” from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Meet at the Garden Visitor Center across from the Manago Hotel in Captain Cook. Volunteers will be able to help with garden maintenance and are invited to bring a brown bag lunch. Water and snacks provided. Call Peter at 323-3318 for more information.

Farmer Direct Markets

Wednesday: “Ho’oulu Farmers Market” 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Sheraton Kona Resort &Spa at Keauhou Bay

Saturday: “Keauhou Farmers Market” 8 a.m. to noon at Keauhou Shopping Center

“Kamuela Farmer’s Market” from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Pukalani Stables

“Waimea Town Market” from 7:30 a.m. to noon at the Parker School in central Waimea

“Waimea Homestead Farmers Market” from 7 a.m. to noon next to Thelma Parker Gym in front of Thelma Parker Library.

Sunday: “Pure Kona Green Market” 9 a.m. – 2 p.m. at Amy Greenwell Garden in Captain Cook

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“Hamakua Harvest” 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Hwy 19 and Mamane Street in Honoka’a

Plant Advice Lines Anytime: konamg@ctahr.hawaii.edu Tuesdays &Thursdays: 9 a.m. to noon at UH-CES in Kainaliu – 322-4892 Mon., Tues. &Fri: 9 a.m. to noon at UH CES at Komohana in Hilo 981-5199 or himga@hawaii.edu

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