‘Ulu (breadfruit) is an ultra-tropical species of flowering tree in the mulberry and jackfruit family originating in the South Pacific that, over time spread to the rest of the Pacific Oceania. ‘Ulu trees can grow to a height of 85 feet, the fruit can weigh up to nearly 10 pounds. ‘Ulu is one of the highest-yielding food plants, with a single tree producing up to 200 or more grapefruit-sized fruits per season.
‘Ulu was brought to Hawai’i around 750AD by voyaging Polynesians. It never became a staple food as it was on islands further south and other Polynesian cultures, as kalo (taro) played that role throughout Hawai’i Nei. Still, ‘ulu is integral and holds an iconic value in Hawaiian culture and spirituality; an immortal symbol of abundance.
People of Hawai’i found immense usefulness from ‘ulu. The nutrition-packed, starchy fruit is rich in carbohydrates, dietary fiber, vitamin C and essential minerals; high potassium, equivalent to two-and-a-half potatoes, ten bananas or twenty bowls of white rice. When cooked, the taste of moderately ripe breadfruit is described as potato-like, or similar to freshly baked bread. ‘Ulu can be roasted, baked, fried, steamed, or boiled. Like the Hawaiian staple kalo mashed to poi, ‘ulu can be mashed, called poi ‘ulu.
‘Ulu timber could be used to make surf boards, drums, canoe parts, poi boards, house and furniture construction and firewood. The sticky sap from the tree was used for glue, caulking, chewing gum, and medicine.
‘Ulu was not only used for food and wood, also storied as being the body form of the war god Kū (or Kūkaʻilimoku).
In Hawaiian lore and mythology ‘ulu originated from the sacrifice of the war god Kū (or Kūkaʻilimoku). Living secretly among mortals as a farmer, Kū married and had children. He and his family lived happily until a food shortage seized their island. When he could no longer bear to watch his children suffer, Kū told his wife that he could deliver them from starvation, but to do so he would have to leave them. Reluctantly she agreed, and at her word, Kū descended into the ground right where he had stood until only the top of his head was visible. His family waited around the spot he had last been, day and night, watering it with their tears until suddenly, a small green shoot appeared where Kū had stood. Quickly, the shoot grew into a tall and leafy tree that was laden with heavy breadfruits that Kū’s family and neighbors gratefully ate, joyfully saved from starvation.