It’s ‘ulu season in Hawaii, time to cook, eat and celebrate one of the islands’ oldest “new” superfoods.

So dodge those big green orbs oozing sticky white sap that splat from trees overhanging streets and driveways, count your mixed blessing at finding a neighbor’s generous box of breadfruit on your doorstep, and experiment with dozens of ways to prepare one of the tropics’ healthiest and versatile foods.

Two Maui events this month celebrate this ubiquitous starch’s comeback in island kitchens and use by famous chefs featuring it on “buy local, eat local” menus.

Breadfruit will be the topic of two events on Maui this month. Tad Bartimus/Civil Beat

The Maui Arts and Cultural Center will screen “The Roots of ‘Ulu” on Saturday, Aug. 12. The documentary is co-produced by filmmakers Matt Yamashita of Molokai and John Antonelli, whose Mill Valley Film Group is based in the San Francisco Bay area.

Two weeks later, Maui Nui Botanical Gardens in Kahulu, partnering with the Ulupono Initiative and Maui Breadfruit Co., will host a native plant sale and food festival, “La Ulu” Breadfruit Day, on Saturday, Aug. 26.

Breadfruit that came to Hawaii with taro, sweet potato and other food plants on epic voyages from eastern Polynesia protected settlers from famine for millennia.

Global Effort

Today’s genetic descendants of those ancestral trees are now being planted, along with other varieties, throughout the tropical world to stave off starvation and offer a model for sustainable regenerative agriculture and agroforestry.

This global effort is rooted in the Breadfruit Institute, a division of the National Tropical Botanical Garden system based at McBryde Garden and Preserve on Kauai.

The institute’s breadfruit collection, the world’s largest, is located at the Kahanu Garden and Preserve on Maui. It numbers about 300 trees and represents 150 varieties. Without it, some some breadfruit strains would be lost.

The 1940 book “Native Planters in Old Hawaii” reported that before westerners arrived, Hawaii’s only breadfruit variety — ‘ulu — grew in vast groves on all Hawaii islands and provided food security and sustainability.

The Hawaii Home Grown Food Network estimates that, pre-contact, the Kona region annually produced as much as 72 million pounds (36,000 tons) of breadfruit that fed thousands of Native Hawaiians.

But the European diet introduced in the late 18th and 19th centuries led to a decline in cultivation of breadfruit and other Native Hawaiian staples.

Mike Opgenorth, director of Kahanu Garden and Preserve, makes a point about breadfruit. Some types would no longer exist if not for the garden’s collection, he said. Courtesy of Kahanu Garden

Sprawling mono crop agriculture, increasing urbanization and our current fast food culture swamped healthy “canoe food” eating habits.

Today’s cheap high-carbohydrate, high-fat “to go” convenience is a major culprit for Hawaii’s increasing obesity, diabetes and heart disease health threats.

The 50th state is one of the most “food insecure” in the nation. The Hawaii Foodbank Network estimates nearly 15 percent of its residents receive emergency food assistance. One in 10 Hawaii residents is Native Hawaiians or from other Pacific Islands. Compared with about 9.6 percent of non-Native residents, roughly16 percent of those citizens are in poverty.

Preserving Varieties

“We live in uncertain times, with food insecurity in Hawaii,” said Mike Opgenorth, director of Kahanu Garden and Preserve. “Now, as it once did, there is an opportunity for ‘ulu to save the people of Hawaii from hunger.

“As the climate changes more of these varieties are at risk,” he said. “Without the collection at Kahanu Garden, some (kinds) of breadfruit would be extinct. If we embrace the diversity within each food type, we create a more secure and dynamic food system that improves resilience for generations.”

Opgenorth credits Dr. Diane Ragone, founder and current director of the Breadfruit Institute, “for her exemplary vision to embrace breadfruit and bring all these diverse varieties together” for research.

Diane Ragone, founder and director of the Breadfruit Institute, collects breadfruit data. Courtesy of Breadfruit Institute

As a University of Hawaii Manoa graduate student from 1985 to 1987, Ragone traveled throughout Oceania collecting breadfruit samples, each with unique characteristics. In Tahiti she gathered dozens of types, and 55 varieties in the Marquesas. She shipped 400 breadfruit root suckers and root sections back to Honolulu, where a third survived and thrived.

In 1989, as the newest National Tropical Botanical Garden staff member on Kauai, Ragone packed up the 190 surviving 3-foot trees then growing at UH on Oahu and sent them by barge to Kahanu Garden. All but three of those plants survived the odyssey and are today tall, healthy specimens of genetic diversity.

“I was on a conservation and preservation mission,” the BFI director said. “I had a vision, first and foremost, that I was doing this work to collect and document breadfruit that were at risk.”

The core of the botanical garden’s breadfruit conservation collection had been established a decade earlier. Twenty varieties from Samoa, French Polynesia, the Seychelles Islands and Pohnpei, one of four Federated States of Micronesia, were planted at Kahanu from 1977 to 1981 in its 464-acre garden and Piilalnihaleheiau, the largest known ancient worship site in Polynesia.

‘Canoe Foods’

As the Native Hawaiian “renaissance” movement simultaneously was inspiring creation of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, a revival of traditional hula through the Merrie Monarch festival and Hawaiian language immersion schools, it was also rekindling interest in home-grown “canoe foods.”

Push-back by medical providers and cultural practitioners against modern life’s increasingly unhealthy and expensive store-bought diet started to raise awareness through community and school gardens about the health benefits of eating complex carbohydrates such as taro, ‘ulu and sweet potatoes.

Abandoned taro patches were reclaimed and replanted. Lawsuits were filed to restore ancient lo’i water rights to Native Hawaiians. A groundswell of initiatives from Hawaii’s non-profit organizations focused on educating all residents about how to supplement their modern diet with “old, slow foods” to help them live longer and better. Hawaii is America’s No.1 state in life expectancy, with an overall average of 81.3 years.

Today Ragone’s team supports research in sustainable agricultural systems capable of feeding people, creating watersheds, and providing bird and animal habitat in deforested countries such as Haiti, and in Africa and the Middle East.

In 2008, the Breadfruit Institute partnered with San Diego-based Global Breadfruit, a division of Cultivaris, an international horticulture company, to ship breadfruit plants to tropical countries where conditions will contribute to their proliferation as a stable food crop.

In less than a decade, 100,000 micro-propagated ‘ulu plants have been sent from Global Breadfruit’s facilities in Germany and Florida to 44 tropical countries. About 10,000 of those plants were distributed free in 1-gallon pots from October 2012 to December 2015 by partnering organizations throughout Hawaii. Private donors and charitable grants paid for the institute’s “Tree of Life” program. 

“This partnership with Global Breadfruit has been a win-win for us,” said Ragone. “My goal for the (breadfruit) collection was, and is, to continue regeneration and share varieties back into the Pacific and elsewhere so it is perpetuated in good health.”

Click here for Hawaii chef Peter Merriman’s recipe for breadfruit vichyssoise.

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