By Glenn I. Teves, County Extension Agent
If I had to pick one tree that would provide an abundance of food for subsistence and survival, it would be breadfruit. Its Hawaiian name says it all: ulu or fruitful. A fast grower, ulu can grow 2-5 feet per year, and can bear fruit two years after planting. It can reach a height of 50 to 70 feet, and each fruit can range from one half to 13 pounds. Each tree can produce anywhere from 350 to over 1000 pounds annually. Although climatic and location differences affect the fruiting season, ulu has the potential to bear fruit year-round, though will commonly bear from May to December. Heavy irrigation after a drought can trigger flowering as well.
Ulu played an important subsistence role in Hawaii and was usually planted near homes. In most areas of Hawaii, ulu played second fiddle to taro and sweet potato. However, on the Big Island in areas of ample moisture, extensive ulu groves in Kona and Kohala fed large populations. For example, in a band along the 2000 to 2600 feet elevation on the slopes of Hualalai, thousands of ulu were grown. This band started above Honaunau, and continued 18 miles toward the border of Ka`u. This area was estimated to produce over 20 tons of ulu annually, and was also an important food for the production of pigs and dogs for consumption. By doing this, the Hawaiian farmer could actually extend the availability of food through the production of ulu. Being far from the shore and away from fish protein, ulu served as a bartering tool, but would also suffice as an essential staple and protein.
Probably native to New Guinea and possibly parts of Indonesia, this venerable tree moved with Polynesians and others throughout the Pacific. The most important staple in the Marquesas, it was stored in underground holds or ‘refrigerators’ and filled with leaves to insulate them and extend their availability as a staple.
Many ulu varieties have seeds, and there are hundreds of varieties of ulu. The Hawaiian ulu is a seedless variety brought from Tahiti and well known throughout most of Polynesia. Other excellent ulu varieties include the Samoan varieties Maopo and Ma`afala, and the Fijian Ulu Fiti. Ulu is propagated by root cuttings. By damaging surface roots, keiki will emerge, then separated from the mother plant and transplanted.
Ulu is comparable to taro in nutrition, and actually complements each other. Boiled, then fried as chips or made into a salad as a potato substitute, it’s a great source of nutrients. Ulu is higher in Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Magnesium, Calcium, Protein, and B Vitamins including B1, B2, B3, B5, and B9 than taro. You can tell ulu is ready to pick and cook when the sap starts to ooze from the fruit.
Ulu grows best along the East End of Molokai, in a band east of Kamalo to Kainalu where the water lens is shallow, and where ulu roots gain adequate moisture and nutrients. It’s here where ulu can be found fruiting most of the year. It thrives where there’s summer rain. If well cared for, one ulu tree can provide a lifetime of food for your family.