Artocarpus altilis

breadfruit tree


Artocarpus altilis

(Parkinson ex. F.A.Zorn) Forberg. 1941

pronounced: ah-toe-KAR-puss al-TILL-iss

(Moraceae — the fig family)


common name: breadfruit

Artocarpus comes from two Greek words, αρτος (artos), bread and καρπος (karpos), fruit, while altilis is Latin for ‘fat’. This is a tall tropical tree, commonly cultivated for food in the Pacific islands, Malesia and southern India. It is thought to be native to New Guinea, but it has been cultivated in the whole region for thousands of years.

It is quite a large tree, capable of growing up to about 25 m high, but more often found to be about 15 m in height. The twigs contain a milky latex. The leaves are large, up to 30 cm long, and vary from almost entire to deeply dissected with 6 or more pairs of pointed lobes.

The breadfruit tree is monoecious: the male flowers are sausage-shaped, producing masses of pollen; the female flowers are club-shaped. Pollination is carried out by fruit bats, but most cultivated varieties are capable of producing fruit without being pollinated.

The fruits are syncarps, about 30 cm long by 15 cm across, and the remains of something like 2,000 flowers showing as hexagons on the outside skin. The cultivars grown for their edible fruit do not normally produce seeds, but some cultivars are grown especially for their edible seeds. Breadfruit is the staple diet of many of the Pacific peoples. The fruits contain about 70% water and 30% starch and sugars, quite a lot of vitamin C, and small amounts of other vitamins and minerals. Baked or roasted in a fire, the fruit has a starchy texture and a smell like freshly baked bread. The seed-producing varieties are often known as ‘breadnuts’. The seeds can be boiled, baked, fried, or ground into meal and taste rather like peanuts or chestnuts.

Among other uses of the tree, the milky latex is used for calking boats; the leaves and latex are used to treat fungal diseases, sprains, and diarrhœa; a herbal tea is made from the leaves; the inner bark can be woven into a coarse cloth, and also used to make rope. The timber from the tree is termite-resistant, and is used for building boats and houses.

When Captain James Cook, with Joseph Banks, visited Tahiti in 1769, they found breadfruit being grown as the staple crop, and later, at Banks’ suggestion, the Admiralty sent William Bligh to the Pacific in 1787 to collect young breadfruit plants and take them to the Caribbean to help feed the slaves on the sugar plantations there. More than 1,000 seedlings were successfully collected, but these were lost during the famous mutiny. On a subsequent voyage in 1792 Bligh collected another 2,600 plants, and they were introduced into St Vincent and Jamaica.

Breadfruit is easy to grow in tropical climates where there are deep, fertile alluvial soils, limestone soils, or even on coastal sands. Some varieties even tolerate brackish water and sea spray. Propagation of the seedless varieties is by suckers or root cuttings. In recent years, micropropagation has been used to mass-produce clones for planting in commercial orchards.

The trees begin bearing fruit in 3 to 5 years, and are productive for many decades. They require little attention or care. Especially in the high islands of Micronesia, cultivating breadfruit trees can protect watersheds, replacing slash-and-burn agriculture and cropping with a permanent tree cover.

Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.


Photographs taken in Picnic Bay August 2016
Page last updated 13th October 2018