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Revitalizing 'Ulu (Breadfruit) from Root to Fruit

Written by Sonia Martinez on 25 March 2011.

Ian Coie of the Breadfruit Institute speaks at Ka O Ka La Public Charter School.
Ian Cole of the Breadfruit Institute speaks at Ka O Ka La Public Charter School.
On March 12th and 13th The Breadfruit Institute of the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Kaua'i, in conjunction with the Hawai'i Homegrown Food Network, presented two day-long educational workshops: 'Ulu from Root to Fruit. The March 12th workshop was held in Kona at the Amy B. H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden in Captain Cook, while the March 13th event took place at the Kua O Ka La Public Charter School in Puna. The workshops were designed to raise awareness and revitalize the custom of growing, cooking and eating 'ulu, a traditional Polynesian food and, along with kalo, sweet potato, yam, banana and coconut, one of the original Hawaiian canoe plants. 'Ulu is an underutilized, nutritious, abundant, delicious, and easily grown food resource on the islands.
Uncle Keiki (on right) leads workshop participants out to the field activities.
Uncle Keiki (on right) leads workshop participants out to the field activities.
I attended the Sunday workshop in Puna on the beautiful grounds of Kua O Ka La School, adjacent to the Ahalanui County Park in the Kapoho area. The morning started with a welcome from Keikialoha Kekipi, who is co-founder of the school and president of the school's board. The importance of 'ulu in Hawaiian culture was then emphasized by Kumu Ryan McCormack. Kumu Ryan recounted several revered Hawaiian legends and recited key chants all related to the 'ulu's significant mythic and nourishing role in the daily life of the Hawaiian people. What came through over and over was the interrelatedness of land, water, sky, fertility, and culture; and in particular the sacred, historic value that 'ulu has for the health of the land, body, spirit, and future generations.

The group then attended the first of a two-part presentation by Ian Cole, on the health and management of growing 'ulu as a food production tree. Ian is the Collection Manager and Curator for the Breadfruit Institute at Kahanu Garden in Hana, Maui. While presenting a powerpoint talk about the management of the Kahanu Garden breadfruit tree collection, Ian covered planting, fertilizing, mulching, pruning, shaping, and sanitation practices required to maintain a healthy single tree, grove of trees, or orchard.

After the morning part of Ian's presentation, there were three concurrent breakout events. Attendees were divided into three groups, with each group then taking turns participating in each of the three events: a school garden tour conducted by Susie Osborne, co-founder and principal of Kua O Ka La School; planting 'ulu trees led by Uncle Keiki; and a culinary arts presentation displaying 'ulu's versatility as a delicious multi-course food.

Culinary teacher Mariposa Blanco with some of her students.
Culinary teacher Mariposa Blanco with some of her students.
The tour of the school grounds was highlighted by the historical and cultural context of the place: Kua O Ka La school is located on land that was once a thriving Hawaiian fishing village, and many significant archaeological and cultural sites remain, some restored and others overgrown by the coastal forest. Walking along the coastal trail reminded participants of the centuries-old way of life that inspired the establishment of Kua O Ka La Public Charter School and the revitalization of 'ulu. It is said that in Puna 'ulu was the most abundant Hawaiian starch food source, more important even than kalo and sweet potato.

The hands-on 'ulu tree-planting demonstration by Uncle Keiki was an educational contrast to the morning presentation of growing 'ulu at Kahanu Garden in Hana. Ian Cole had frequently reminded listeners of the need to take into consideration the unique planting conditions of each site. At Kahanu Gardens, which is an experimental and demonstration breadfruit orchard located in a very wet climate, great care is taken to minimize pest opportunities and, as one example, to avoid using coconut trimmings as a mulch due to their infestation with plant pathogens.

Tamales being filled with 'ulu poi and 100% locally grown veggies, prior to steaming.
Tamales being filled with 'ulu poi and 100% locally grown veggies, prior to steaming.
At Kua O Ka La, on the other hand, Uncle Keiki demonstrated a traditional 'ulu planting method designed for a diverse, small-scale home and 'ohana perennial food garden in a drier, rocky growing environment. To plant the 'ulu, Uncle Keiki surrounded his keiki 'ulu root cutting in the planting hole with decomposing coconut husks! After planting an 'ulu tree, Uncle Keiki taught a traditional planting/birthing ritual that poignantly revealed the symbolic importance of “ho'oulu ka 'ulu:” planting breadfruit as a re-birthing of the vital spirit of indigenous agriculture—participants had the opportunity to practice this profound ritual as part of the tree planting demonstration.

For the preparing and cooking demonstration, Auntie Mariposa Blanco, with the help of five students from the school's Culinary Arts Program, created a beautiful and abundant selection of dishes using 100% locally grown or produced ingredients. And, of course, the star of the menu was 'ulu. There was fresh salsa to be scooped by fried 'ulu chips; two different salads; two types of 'ulu poi, one savory and one sweet for dessert (like kulolo); and the making of 'ulu tamales, which consisted of layering 'ulu poi with other fresh vegetables, such as rounds of cooked carrot, kernel corn, sliced green onions, Puna goat cheese and chopped cherry tomatoes on softened corn husks, then wrapped and steamed.

During this multi-course, delectable lunch, Andrea Dean, co-Director of the Ho'oulu ka 'Ulu project, spoke about the Hawai'i Homegrown Food Network's and Breadfruit Institutes's statewide initiative to revitalize breadfruit. She also announced plans to hold two 'ulu festivals on this island, one in Kona later this year at Amy B. H. Greenwell Ethobotanical Garden in Captain Cook on September 24th, and a second one in Puna at Kua O Ka La Public Charter School in February 2012.

After lunch participants went back for the second part of Ian's presentation. Ian reviewed some of the topics touched on in the morning session and then moved on with the help of Craig Elevitch, of Agroforestry Net and the Hawai'i Homegrown Food Network to the propagation of 'ulu by different methods, including air-layering, grafting, root cutting, stem cutting and tissue culture. Again, it was emphasized that no one propagation technique works in all locations, and that networking with others and experimenting to find the best in your particular microclimate is strongly advised.

I found it a most informative and exciting workshop and urge everyone to try to attend it if it is offered again in the future. And keep your eyes peeled for more information about the Ho'oulu ka 'Ulu Breadfruit Project at www.breadfruit.info.

Sonia Martinez, the Hawai'i Homegrown Food Network regular farmers market reporter, is a cookbook author and freelance food writer for several publications in Hawai'i, including The Hamakua Times of Honoka'a. She is a contributing writer for Edible Hawaiian Islands Magazine and has her own food & garden blog at soniatasteshawaii.com.