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A simple solution to a complex problem – could this tropical fruit end world hunger?
by Colleen Brooker
The breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) is simply one of my favorite tropical trees. The tree itself is very ornamental and the starchy fruit is delicious when properly prepared. And what’s more, this unusual fruit could help alleviate world hunger! I was intrigued by a recent article in Newsweekabout breadfruit for Haiti. It was here that I first I read about Diane Ragone, Ph.D. She is the founder of The Breadfruit Institute located in Kauai, Hawaii. Ragone has the largest collection of breadfruit trees in the world and is working with many countries to help end world hunger.
Through her research, Ragone has found that the breadfruit is one of the more nutritious starches. It is a complex carbohydrate and is also rich in important minerals. The huge advantage of this crop is that it is a tree crop and will not further deplete the soil. The trees will also help prevent further erosion and can be grown in poor soil, which is very prevalent in Haiti.
In the Newsweekarticle, they seemed to dismiss breadfruit’s potential for Haiti, saying that there is not enough support for growers in the region. I strongly disagree with this perspective. We just traveled throughout the Lesser Antilles, and I found breadfruit to be a staple on many of the islands. I wrote to Ragone and asked her about this. She said that Newsweek’sattitude is a typical response, but she is undeterred. Haiti already has some mature breadfruit trees introduced centuries ago by the French, and more have been subsequently cultivated by residents, suggesting that breadfruit could do quite well in Haiti.
Ragone was also interviewed in a recent article in the Miami Heraldentitled “Breadfruit to the Rescue.” In it, she explains that the breadfruit is easy to plant, and the tree can bear fruit as soon as three to five years later. One tree can yield up to 200 hundred pounds of fruit every year! The tree can be planted in an hour and then requires little or no labor after that. “If we can plant millions of breadfruit trees in the hills of Haiti, the island could be transformed,” says Ragone. The breadfruit does not have a long shelf life so has to be eaten fresh, but I have also stumbled across some research done by the University of St. Thomas (in St. Paul, Minn.) having to do with designing a breadfruit dehydrator for Haiti. Promising and doable.
Breadfruit has a long history in the Caribbean - Captain Bligh brought the first breadfruit trees to the islands in 1793. (This was his second crossing, after the first trip ended in the famous mutiny aboard the Bounty.) The 1200 young trees were brought as a food source for the African slaves in the British colonies. The first Caribbean breadfruit tree was planted on St. Vincent – it is still alive today.
St. John also has some beautiful mature breadfruit trees. There are two along the North Shore Road in Eleanor Gibney’s gardens. We also have a nice young tree that is already bearing fruit by the Coral Bay Garden Center. My personal favorite is the one across from Connections in Cruz Bay, in the yard of the little Lutheran Church.
Given the benefits of breadfruit, we ought to consider planting more on our small island. It is best to plant this tree in a sheltered spot with plenty of room – down in a flat area is the best location, in particular because it needs protection from strong winds. Adding compost when planting will give it a good start, and it also needs irrigation at first, but will tolerate gray water. It can be grown as a yard tree and there are so many uses for the fruit. Breadfruit fries are delicious, for example, and breadfruit cooked in coconut milk with fresh fish is my favorite!
When Ragone is ready to begin planting these thoroughly useful and bountiful trees in Haiti, I would love to go and help (and I’m sure she could use other volunteers, too!) – we’ll keep you posted as the story develops.
Colleen Brooker is a gardening coach/consultant and former owner of Gabriel’s Gardens in Coral Bay. She and her family live aboard the 50’ sailboat Storyteller. You can email her with your permaculture questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.