Episode 12: ‘Ulu

Feb 5, 2016

It was a time of drought and starvation. To feed his wife and children, Kū, one of the most powerful gods in the Hawaiian pantheon, transformed himself into an ‘ulu tree. Such is the legend of the creation of ‘ulu or breadfruit, another essential crop in early Hawaiian agriculture. The largest grove of ‘ulu trees grew in an agroforest in the Kona Field System—half a mile wide and eighteen miles long, the forest contained thousands of ‘ulu trees and according to estimates by Dr. Diane Ragone of the Breadfruit Institute, those trees produced five tons of ‘ulu fruit an acre every year. But ‘ulu wasn’t restricted to Kona. It could be found in lands both wet and dry—in the steep, rainy valleys of Kīpahulu, for example, and in the hot, arid flats of Lahaina; in both of those places today, says Ragone, you can still find descendants of the ‘ulu trees that came before. And the Hawaiians used ‘ulu for more than just food. The tree’s bark provided medicine and the fruit’s sticky white sap was used to caulk canoes and catch birds—trappers would smear the sap on a tree branch and wait for a bird to alight. ‘Ulu even figured in several ‘ōlelo no‘eau, or proverbs, about love, including this counsel, which was offered to young women: Nano no a ka ‘ulu i paki kepau. Look for the gummy breadfruit—in other words, for a man of substance who has matured