Monday, September 8, 2014

Fairchild Garden Breeds Better Jackfruit, Hosts a Jubilee!

Large fruit growing off the trunk of a Jackfruit tree.
(Photo courtesy of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden)

This coming Saturday (September 13th), Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Florida will be hosting a Jackfruit Jubilee.

I had a chance to speak with Noris Ledesma, Fairchild's Curator of Tropical Fruit, about the amazing jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) and the research that Fairchild has been doing on the plant.

Garden of Aaron: Tell me about the Jackfruit. It looks huge from the photos I've seen!

Noris Ledesma: Jackfruits can weigh anywhere from 30-70 lbs -- sometimes even more. And each tree, depending on its age, can bear from 20-60 fruits.

Such a large, heavy fruit can be intimidating. People think, "What will I do with this huge, spiny thing?" When we display jackfruits in the garden, people are always amazed. They want to touch them.

As for the flavor, it combines pineapple, banana and mango. Nobody is disappointed when they take a taste. And of course a single large fruit can feed many people.

Garden of Aaron: So what sort of research has Fairchild been doing with the jackfruit?

Noris Ledesma: We started a program back in the 1980s to introduce selected jackfruit specimens from Australia, Thailand, India and Vietnam. We use traditional plant breeding techniques to select fruits based on different characteristics. Then every two years we have festivals to introduce the "best" fruits.

Of course, not everyone agrees what makes a great jackfruit. Americans typically like their fruit to be crunchy,but other cultures, especially Vietnamese for instance, like very soft textures.

Noris Ledesma opens a Jackfruit
(Photo courtesy of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden)

Garden of Aaron: What is the history of the Jackfrut in Florida

Noris Ledesma: As long as a century ago, people were already planting Jackfruit from seeds and raising the trees in their backyards. Nowadays there is an industry in South Florida where growers will produce jackfruits primarily for the Asian community. These fruits will be shipped up to places like New York for weddings. When Indian people get married, they often feel it is important to have jackfruits at the table. It's a part of their culture.

On the other hand, for the average American consumer with a small immediate family, a 70 lb. fruit seems daunting. You'd have to invite the whole neighborhood to each such a fruit! These consumers are more interested in 1-2 lb. fruits, so we have focused some of our efforts on breeding smaller jackfruits that could appeal to a wider market.

Garden of Aaron: So what is this breeding program like?

Noris Ledesma: It's a very traditional breeding program. When we talk about breeding and plant genetics, some people get afraid. They imagine we are in a lab, breaking genes and playing God, but we are doing traditional breeding, just controlling the transfer of pollen from male to female plants. It's very easy to distinguish male and female jackfruit flowers, so you can move pollen from one plant to another using paintbrushes. That way we know the identity of the "mother" and "father" plants. When the female flowers set fruit, we bag it to ensure there is no insect contamination. When the fruit is mature, we harvest the fruit, process the seeds and create a new generation of plants. This type of breeding takes many years to get results, so this year we are excited to finally have the opportunity to distribute a new generation of smaller jackfruits to the public.

We have also selected jackfruit that are low in latex. We don't have time in our culture to clean a complicated fruit. The new jackfruits we have developed are low in latex so you can process the fruit quickly, and of course these fruits have very good flavor.

Garden of Aaron: How is jackfruit traditionally prepared?

Noris Ledesma: People use jackfruit in many different ways. In India, jackfruit actually is often used as a meat substitute! And since the seeds have high protein content, they are sometimes roasted like nuts or mashed to make a sort of multi-grain bread.

One exciting thing at the garden is when families of immigrants come to visit and see a tree like the jackfruit. The plant awakens memories and the parents or grandparents can start telling their families about how they used the fruit back in India or Vietnam or Thailand. They don't have to travel thousands of miles to encounter such a tree -- they can grow it in their own backyard here in South Florida.

(Editor's note - Fairchild has a webpage showing how to open and prepare jackfruit.)

Garden of Aaron: Would you say the jackfruit makes a nice ornamental plant in tropical areas?

Noris Ledesma: It can be a beautiful tree. The fruit is certainly eye-catching. And during long, hot summers, the tree's leaves stay shiny and beautiful. If people come to the Jubilee, we will have classes on propagating, fertilizing, pruning and training the tree. It's not difficult to grow in South Florida, but it probably will not grow in other parts of the United States, except in Hawaii.

Garden of Aaron: What about water needs?

Noris Ledesma: It does need some irrigation for its first year or two. After that, it can survive on regular rainfall. Of course, humidity in South Florida is quite high. In terms of nutrition, we do recommend mulching. Our soils in South Florida can be very rocky, so mulch can help the tree's development. And an application of nitrogen fertilizer can help give the tree the energy it needs to produce such large fruit.

Garden of Aaron: Do you think that more people will try jackfruit in the future thanks to the breeding program at Fairchild?

Noris Ledesma: It is our hope that these smaller fruits will show up throughout American supermarkets. Of course, there will still be some cultural issues to overcome. For instance, since a ripe jackfruit still has a green color on the outside, some people who are unfamiliar with it may not be able to tell whether it's ripe or they may think it looks like a vegetable. Probably, it will first win acceptance with second or third generation Asian-Americans who want to try eating jackfruit, but don't want to buy an enormous fruit.

Fairchild's website has a list of Curator's Choice Jackfruit being sold at the festival, including some of the new hybrids with smaller, lower latex fruit.