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Unleashing the Potential of Under-utilised Crops: Breadfruit by Santiago Juan

in Featured/Issue 38 by

Belize has been blessed with edible landscapes. Take breadfruit, or masapan in Spanish, for example. In Belize you can see breadfruit growing in all our districts. In both northern districts you see old trees still producing well in very calcareous soils; in southern Belize large trees can be seen in low lying areas and brackish water like in Hopkins Village or along the Sittee River, a testament to the great adaptation ability of this humble plant. Most Belizeans have eaten breadfruit at least once in their lifetime; yet it is probably the most underutilized crop growing in Belize. Nowadays, it is attracting the attention of gourmets and some Caribbean countries are making small shipments to the United States, Canada and Europe for specialized ethnic markets. Breadfruit has great potential in Belize serving the growing market for visitors to our country who are gluten intolerant, vegetarian or vegan.

Food Uses
Like the banana and plantain, breadfruit may be eaten ripe as a fruit or green as a vegetable. In the green stage, the fruit is hard and the interior is white, starchy and somewhat fibrous. Sliced, buttered and pan-fried, it makes a tasty breakfast “toast”. When fully ripe, the fruit is somewhat soft; the interior is cream-coloured or yellow and pasty and sweetly fragrant. It can be baked whole with a little water in the pan. Some cooks remove the stem and core before cooking and put butter and sugar in the cavity, and serve with more of the same. Others may serve the baked fruit with butter, salt and pepper. Ripe fruits may be halved or quartered and steamed for 1 or 2 hours and seasoned in the same manner as baked fruits. The steamed fruit is sometimes sliced, rolled in flour and fried in deep fat. The pulp scraped from soft, ripe breadfruits is combined with coconut milk, salt and sugar and baked to make a pudding. A more elaborate dessert is concocted of mashed ripe breadfruit with butter, 2 beaten eggs, sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon and rosewater, a dash of sherry or brandy, blended and boiled. Breadfruit is also candied, or sometimes prepared as a sweet pickle.

The dried fruit has been made into flour; combining it with wheat flour has been found to be more nutritious than wheat flour alone. Breadfruit flour, much richer than wheat flour in lysine and other essential amino acids, contains 4.05% protein, 76.70% carbohydrates, and 331 calories per 100 grams. (Cassava flour contains 1.16% protein, 83.83% carbohydrates, and 347 calories.) In Jamaica the flour is boiled, sweetened, and eaten as porridge for breakfast. Soft or overripe breadfruit is best for making chips; these are being manufactured commercially in Trinidad and Barbados. In Jamaica, Puerto Rico and the South Pacific, fallen male flower spikes are boiled, peeled and eaten as vegetables or are candied by recooking for 2-3 hours in syrup, then rolled in powdered sugar and sun-dried.

Photo courtesy of Belize Spice Farm

All parts of the tree, including the unripe fruit, are rich in milky, gummy latex. There are two main types: the normal, “wild” type (cultivated in some areas) with seeds and little pulp, and the “cultivated” (more widely grown) seedless type, but occasionally a few fully developed seeds are found in usually seedless cultivars. An unpublished report of 1921 covered 200 cultivars of breadfruit in the Marquesas. In 1966 the South Pacific Commission reported 166 varieties in the region; in Fiji 70 named varieties are locally separated into 8 classes by leaf forms.

Origin and Distribution
Breadfruit belongs to the mulberry family, Moraceae. It is believed to be native to a vast area extending from New Guinea through the Indo-Malayan Archipelago to Western Micronesia. It is said to have been widely spread in the Pacific area by migrating Polynesians; Hawaiians believed that it was brought to Oahu in the 12th Century A.D. It is said to have been first seen by Europeans in the Marquesas in 1595, then in Tahiti in 1606. At the beginning of the 18th Century, the early English explorers were loud in its praises and its fame; together with several periods of famine in Jamaica between 1780 and 1786, inspired plantation owners in the British West Indies petitioned King George III to import seedless breadfruit trees to provide food for their slaves.

There is good evidence that the French navigator, Sonnerat, obtained the seeded breadfruit in the Philippines and brought it to the French West Indies in 1772. The story of Captain Bligh’s first voyage to Tahiti in 1787 and the loss of his cargo of 1,015 potted breadfruit plants on his disastrous return voyage is well known. He set out again in 1791 and delivered 5 different kinds totaling 2,126 plants to Jamaica in February 1793. It has been suggested that the seeded breadfruit was carried by Spaniards from the Philippines to Mexico and Central America long before any reached the West Indies.

Young breadfruit trees are planted in well-enriched holes 15 inches deep and 3 feet wide. The trees are spaced 25 to 40 feet apart in plantations. Usually there are about 25 trees per acre. They can also be propagated by transplanting suckers which spring up naturally from the roots. One can deliberately induce suckers by uncovering and injuring a root. Pruning the parent tree increases the number of suckers and root pruning each sucker several times over a period of months before taking it up contributes to its survival when transplanted. Those grown from root suckers bear in 5 years and are productive for 50 years. Some growers recommend pruning branches that have borne fruit and normally die back, because this practice stimulates new shoots and also tends to keep the tree from being too tall for convenient harvesting. The breadfruit tree is handsome, fast growing, and long-living; it can reach 85 feet in height, often with a clear trunk to 20 feet becoming 2 to 6 feet in width and often buttressed at the base, though some varieties may never exceed 1/4 or 1/2 of these dimensions. Breadfruit is borne singly or in 2’s or 3’s at the branch tips.

Harvesting and Yield
Breadfruits are picked when maturity is indicated by the appearance of small drops of latex on the surface. Harvesters climb the trees and break the fruit stalk with a forked stick to make the fruit fall. Even though this may cause some bruising or splitting, the fruit is eaten quickly; so very few losses are recorded due to bruising. Productivity varies between wet and dry areas. In the West Indies, a conservative estimate is 25 fruits per tree. Studies in Barbados indicate a reasonable potential of 6.7 to 13.4 tons per acre.

Other Uses
Leaves: Breadfruit leaves are eagerly eaten by domestic livestock; they are fed to cattle and goats, horses and pigs. Horses are apt to eat the bark of young trees as well, so new plantings must be protected from them.
Latex: After boiling with coconut oil, the latex is used for caulking boats and mixed with colored earth, as a paint for boats.
Wood: The wood is yellowish or yellow-gray with dark markings or orange speckles, light in weight, not very hard but strong, used for construction and furniture. In Samoa, it is the standard material for house-posts and for the rounded roof-ends of native houses. Because of its lightness, the wood is in demand for surfboards. Traditional Hawaiian drums played with the palms for hula dances are made from sections of breadfruit trunks 2 feet long and 1 foot wide. Wood rough-sanded by coral and lava, smoothed with the dried stipules of the breadfruit tree itself, and seasoned in mud is made into household articles.
Fiber: Fiber from the bark is difficult to extract but highly durable. Malaysians fashioned it into clothing. Material for tape cloth is obtained from the inner bark of young trees and branches. In the Philippines, it is made into harnesses for water buffalo.

Medicinal Uses
In Trinidad and the Bahamas, a decoction of the breadfruit leaf is believed to lower blood pressure, and is also said to relieve asthma. Crushed leaves are applied on the tongue as a treatment for thrush. The leaf juice is employed as ear-drops. Ashes of burned leaves are used on skin infections. A powder of roasted leaves is employed as a remedy for enlarged spleen. The crushed fruit is used as poultice on tumors to “ripen” them. Toasted flowers are rubbed on the gums around an aching tooth. The latex is used on skin diseases and is bandaged on the spine to relieve sciatica. Diluted latex is taken internally to overcome diarrhea.

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