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The breadfruit rivals only the coconut in its importance within many Oceanic societies as a source of food and materials for creating a wealth of different kinds of artefacts.

The breadfruit is a relatively fast growing tree, the larger varieties of which can reach a height of 25 metres and be between 0.5 and 1.5 metres in width. The trunk of mature specimens yields a very durable reddish gold coloured timber. It was used by the Maohi peoples of the Society Islands for house and door frames, canoes and for marae fatarau (altars) and images.

A close relative of the fig and Mulberry, the breadfruit tree has numerous spreading branches and distinctive pinnately cleft glossy-green leaves with yellow veins and tiny hairs on the underside. Maohi peoples used breadfruit leaves to wrap food for pit roasting.

All parts of the breadfruit tree exude a milky adhesive sap when cut. In various parts of Polynesia the sap was used to trap birds by spreading it on tree branches. It was also mixed with cocoanut fibres and used as caulking in canoes.

The female trees begin producing fruit when they are 5 to 7 years old, and can continue bearing for up to 50 years. Mature trees produce between 75 and 150 fruit in 2 or 3 crops a year. Depending on the variety, mature fruit can be from 10 to 45 centimetres in length and from 5 to 30 centimetres in diameter. The fruit can be round, oblong or pear-shaped.

The Maohi name for breadfruit is 'uru, or 'head'.

As breadfruit ripens, its green rind gradually turns yellow or yellowish brown, while the fibrous and starchy interior softens, becomes pulpy and sweet smelling.

On Tahiti, the breadfruit produces three crops, in March, July and November. Because different varieties mature at different times fruit can be obtained for around seven to nine months of the year.

Traditionally, Maohi cooked breadfruit in the early stages of ripening, or when they had ripened fully. The fruit was either roasted over a fire or baked in an oven pit. Maohi also peeled breadfruit before the interior became pulpy and left them to ferment in pits lined with breadfruit leaves. The resulting 'dough', called ti'o'o or mahi, would keep for between three or four months and was used to make cakes called 'ipo-ti'o'o', or 'ipo-mahi'. The dough was also mixed and cooked with other fruits and vegetables (Henry, 1928: 40).

The breadfruit tree was also important culturally in that the inner bark of young branches of the tree was used by high ranking women to make the highly prized fine white tapa known as 'pu'upu'u.

Between 1925 and 1927, the ethnobotanist Gerrit Parmile Wilder identified 32 varieties of breadfruit on tahiti and Moorea, and recorded the names of a further 27 varieties from various sources. Wilder found the rich and localised nature of Maohi knowledge of the breadfruit daunting. 'The names given by Tahitians to the different varieties of breadfruit', he confessed,

have been perplexing to me, as the same variety will sometimes be given different names in different localities and many names are seemingly synonyms. It has been somewhat difficult to procure reliable information and it takes much time and not a little patience (Wilder, 1928: 20).

In a survey of Tahiti and Moorea in the late 1820s, John Muggridge Orsmond, the Tahitian missionary, recorded that Maohi distinguished about 40 varieties of breadfruit on the basis of differences in the form of the fruit, the ways in which fruit was best eaten, the time it fruited, or the suitability of the tree for making tapa cloth (Henry, 1928: 40).

Modern botanists believe that the breadfruit is a native species in the Indonesian archipelago, New Guinea and western Micronesia, and was carried eastward by Polynesian migrants.

Europeans appear to have first encountered breadfruit during Quiros' landing in the Marquesas in 1595.

In the 1770s, British West Indian plantation owners were attracted to the idea of planting breadfruit as a major food source for slaves. On his return to England in 1771, Joseph Banks had spoken highly the fruit's high nutritional value and ease of cultivation, as had Johann and George Forster, who served as naturalists on Cook's second voyage of 1772-1775.

Banks variously encouraged planters and colonial administrators to cultivate breadfruit. He was also instrumental in London's Society of Arts and Manufactures offering a prize in 1776 for its successful transplantation to the West Indies. However, it was not until the cessation of hostilities with America and France in 1783 that schemes for transplanting the fruit seemed practical, and then it was not until early 1787 that the British government agreed to sponsor a collecting expedition. This was the ill-fated Bounty expedition, under William Bligh, which left England for Tahiti in late December that same year.

While by the early nineteenth century the Breadfruit was grown throughout the British West Indies, it never became so prominent a food source as Banks and colonial champions of the fruit imagined (Mackay, 1974: 77).


Created: 24 April 2004

Published by South Seas, 1 February 2004
Comments, questions, corrections and additions: Paul.Turnbull@jcu.edu.au
Prepared by: Paul Turnbull
Updated: 28 June 2004
To cite this page use: http://nla.gov.au/nla.cs-ss-biogs-P000412

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