The breadfruit tree (Artocarpus altilis) is a beautiful tropical shade tree. It produces light green fruits that are rounded and as large as an American football. The fruit's skin is warty. There are two forms of the fruits. One is sterile and lacks seeds, and the other is a fertilized fruit with seeds that has a more spiny-skin and is referred to as a "breadnut." Breadfruit trees are grown in frost-free regions (U.S. Department of Agriculture winter hardiness zones 10 and warmer) for shade inland or along the ocean.
The precise origin of the breadfruit tree is obscure, according to Margaret Barwick, author of "Tropical and Subtropical Trees." Historically it was cultivated for centuries in New Guinea, Indonesia, the Philippines and the southwestern Pacific. Taxonomists today often simply consider it native to the humid lowlands of Southeast Asia.
A fast-growing tree, breadfruit will mature to 60 to 70 feet tall and 80 to 90 feet wide. The branching canopy is full and rounded, supporting the evergreen foliage year round.
This tree's leaves are highly attractive--glossy jade green with pale yellow veins. Each leaf blade, up to 24 inches long, is oval but with many deeply cut lobes. The thick and heavy leaves can also lack lobes, such as a variety native to the Samoan Islands, according to "Tropical and Subtropical Trees." Male and female flowers appear in summer or winter when rainfall is ample. The female flowers' ovaries become fruits with or without pollination. Each fruit is actually a conglomeration of many fused, tiny ripening ovaries called a "syncarp," about 8 inches in diameter.
From an economic standpoint, the breadfruit tree is a vital component to life of native peoples across tropical southeast Asia and the Pacific. The tree supplies timber and bark fibers as well as fruit, edible seeds and shade from the intense sunlight. One story associated with the breadfruit concerns the HMS Bounty and Captain William Bligh. While he overcame mutiny in 1789, he also managed to carry breadfruits on board and introduce the food and plant from Tahiti to the West Indies in 1793, as noted in "Tropical and Subtropical Trees." Purdue University says evidence exists that French navigator Sonnerat brought breadfruit trees to the French West Indies from the Philippines as early as 1772.
The fruit is dense and potato-like in its white flesh and does not store long once harvested from the tree. It is rich in carbohydrates and vitamins, especially A and B. Once skinned, the flesh is boiled, baked or roasted. If the fruit happens to be a seeded breadnut, the seeds are boiled and eaten like chestnuts.
Potential Alternative Plants
Closely related to and resembling the breadfruit tree is the jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus). This tropical tree is native to India with glossy oval leaves and warty, light green fruits that are even larger than those of the breadfruit. Jackfruits tend to attain a more oblong watermelon size and shape. In temperate regions, perhaps the immature fruits of the Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) could be regarded as large green fruits. About the size of a grapefruit or softball, Osage oranges have a warty skin that smells of citrus but eventually becomes pale yellow-green when ripe.