Breadfruit and Jamaica's Gardens

European traders negotiate for breadfruit in the south Pacific. (Engraving by Lester from a drawing by Hopkins for the Gallery of Nature and Art/Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Yesterday, Katie and I recorded an episode that had a little (or a lot) to do with breadfruit -- the prickly, enormous fruit of a tropical tree. Breadfruit is native to the Pacific islands, but it made its way to the West Indies as a possible solution to a British food problem: cheaply feeding the slaves of Jamaica and the Lesser Antilles after the American Colonies declared independence.

Getting the breadfruit to the islands turned out to be a monumental undertaking, resulting in loss of life, reputation and money. The plants didn't even arrive until 1793, and by 1834, slavery was abolished in the British Empire. By that point, though, the exotic fruit had finally caught on and spread its shoots across Jamaica.

While researching this bizarre-looking, nutritious and supposedly delicious plant, I came across an article by Caroline Alexander for the Smithsonian. The historian not only tracked down one of the original Pacific specimens, but took readers through a tour of Jamaica's grand old botanical gardens. And they truly are old. The one at Bath, founded in 1779, is among the oldest in the word.

A few centuries after world exploring became the rage, collecting botanical specimens started to catch on. The major colonial powerhouses would of course collect some plants to eat and admire, but also to build up what Alexander calls "encyclopedic plant collections for study." The primary repository for British collectors was the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, which is near London. (Kew today actually performs a similar cataloging function with its wild seed bank -- something I blogged about for Discovery News.)

Not everything can grow in England, though, so satellite stations sprang up in Calcutta, Sydney, St. Vincent and Bath in Jamaica. That's partly why Jamaica's plant life features such a staggering array of imported species, a collection that spills beyond the iron gates of its gardens. Some of the island's best-known plants aren't natives. Bananas, mangoes, plantains and the ackee, which is Jamaica's national food, all come from abroad, as does sugar cane -- the crop best associated with the country's once enormous wealth and brutal slave past, as well as the reason why breadfruit was brought there in the first place.