Jackfruit, Artocarpus heterophyllus, is one of the most successful and strangest plants at Project Bona Fide. Jackfruit is the archetypal Permaculture Rock Star - a term I once overheard Chris using on a tour. Permaculture Rock Stars are multi-purpose crops that meet a wide range of human needs, are resilient, require minimal maintenance and provide environmental services. Jackfruit typifies this: it is a tree crop while a thousand uses, makes it through five month dry season, grows and produces rapidly, and helps out the overall system.
There has been an incredible amount of research, experimentation, and learning that has been done at the Finca over the past 10 years, but much of it only remains available to people that visit the site. This series of blogs is an attempt to rectify that - to share the best, most productive plants and trees we have found with all of you, for others farming in Nicaragua, for people farming in similar climates around the globe, or just for inspiration. Since I spend most my time at the Finca these days climbing, harvesting, processing, and getting covered in jackfruit, and having been named Jackfruit Jim, I figure it’s a good tree to start with.
Jackfruit is a weird tree. I don’t know what evolutionary process or Hindu god dreamt it up, but it really shouldn’t exist. The fruit looks weird: it’s a large oval up to three feet long with a thick, green or yellow skin covered in small spikes. These fruits can weigh up to 110 lbs, making it the world’s largest tree fruit. The tree bears fruit on its stems, so you’ll often see two or three feet long fruit hanging directly off of a tree’s trunk.
Jackfruit tastes weird: its flavor was the original taste base for Juicyfruit. People either love it or hate it. But it can do an amazing variety of things. Its flesh, seeds, leaves, and flowers are all edible and used in a thousand different ways. Animals love all parts of it. The wood is prized for musical instruments in the Phillipines, and also produces a dye that gives Buddhist monks’ robes their distinctive orange color.
Originating the rainforests of Malaysia and India, jackfruit trees are medium-sized trees, 25 to 85 feet in height. They can be grafted, and many specific cultivars are, but ours are all grown from seed. All of ours are grown incredibly fast from seed - up to 2 meters per year - and incredibly easily from seed: planted in bags in our nursery, jackfruit seedlings are nurtured and watered for one year before outplanting. After that, we sort of ignore it and let it do its thing.
We have a 5 month dry season here on Isla Ometepe. This is our biggest limiting factor in plant growth and species selection. Lacking water pressure for an extensive irrigation system, we need trees that do not need much water for five month periods, that are supremely drought-tolerant. Jackfruit is this to the extreme. We outplant seedlings at the start of the wet season, and give them a few buckets of water over the following dry season to help them establish. After that, we never irrigate them. Even in their second year in the ground, they can make through the 5 month dry season without damage. In fact, they seem to thrive with it.
And while they need to be weeded monthly for the first year or three, jackfruit trees, within 5 years, get big enough and drop enough leaf litter to shade out and suppress surrounding weeds. Thus, we don’t really need to weed or mulch the trees - they do it themselves. Intercropping jackfruit with nitrogen-fixing trees that are regularly pruned and mulched supplies the tree with all the nutrients it needs.
Right now, the only labor necessary in our 6 year old jackfruit orchard is harvesting and processing. We have to climb trees and find ripe fruits before the hurrakas do. And then we have to process them - separating good flesh, bad flesh, seeds, skin and core from each other, and boiling and peeling the seeds before using fruit and seed in an infinite array of manners. Its a labor intensive process, but we get lessons from the best:
The Thousand Uses of Jackfruit
For something that requires such little labor, jackfruit gives us a lot. Jackfruit trees provide pretty much every type of food imaginable. The fruit, ripe and unripe, seeds, leaves, and flowers are all edible. You could make a delicious three course meal using only jackfruit. Seriously - you start with jackfruit seed hummus or falafel, or maybe young leaf and grated jackfruit flower salad. The main course could be either unripe fruit and seed curry, a staple in southern India, or an American might want barbecue unripe jackfruit, as it has a texture resembling meat, with a side of mashed jackfruit, which is incredibly similar to mashed potatoes. And for dessert a cake made of jackfruit seed flour and jackfruit flavor, with a scoop of jackfruit ice cream. After dinner you can take home a jar of jackfruit jam, jelly, or chutney. Maybe dried and candied jackfruit, or a jar of jackfruit seed hummus. At Indian Jackfruit festivals, people share hundreds of different uses and value-added products for jackfruit.
Just look at what the giant fruit can become. It can be a green vegetable or fresh fruit. The seeds can be roasted or turned into a variety of value-added products like hummus. The fresh fruit can become jam and jelly - and because the fruit itself is super sweet and its shell has a large amount of pectin, you can make the entire jam with no other additives. We add some cinnamon and ginger - both of which we grow on the farm.
Jackfruit trees also provide much, much more than food. The leaves and fruit make great livestock, pig, and poultry fodder. The timber is prized for construction, furniture, and musical instruments. The latex can used be used for gum - and the ripe fruit’s flavor is the original basis of Juicyfruit gum, meaning you can make your own Juicyfruit gum just from a jackfruit tree. The wood can also be chipped to produce a orange dye that was used in southeast Asia to give Buddhist monks’ robes their distinctive orange colors. We plan on experimenting with this in our sewing workshop at Mano Amiga.
Jackfruit trees provides many environmental services, increasing the overall health and productivity of a site while providing its diverse yield, if placed properly. With a thick, spreading root system and heavy leaf litter, jackfruit trees can help reduce erosion and run-off, especially on steep slopes. They also make a great windbreak - they can stand up to hurricane force winds with little damage, and because they bear fruit on their stems and not their crowns, they are one of the only fruit trees that can withstand heavy winds without production suffering. This makes one of the only food producing crops that can be used effectively as a windbreak, which is very important for smallholders whose crops suffer wind damage but don’t have the space to grow non-food plants.
As more and more sections of our jackfruit orchard begin to come on line, we are beginning to start a jackfruit microbusiness. The seeds, which need to be boiled and peeled, have a texture and taste similar to chickpeas, and are delicious in hummus, falafel, and curries. We recently launched a jackfruit microbusiness at the Finca]] selling jackfruit seeds to restaurants around Nicaragua. We are experimenting with and perfecting other value-added products: jackfruit jams, curries, chutneys, and dried, candied jackfruit. As we begin large-scale processing at both the Finca and Proyecto Mano Amiga’s commercial kitchen, we can begin streamlining this process and bringing local community members into it.
Right now, we are working on a program to supply trees with value-added processing potential - mango, jackfruit, guava, etc - to local families, who will then sell the fruits directly to Mano Amiga’s processing kitchen. Jackfruit is ideal for this. It requires minimal maintenance and water, making it easy for families to grow, especially since many plots lack water access. The seeds and the fruit, both of which the tree produces abundantly, have high economic potential in value-added products, meaning nothing will go to waste.
Jackfrut is a tropical and subtropical lowland fruit. It’s found all over the world - ubiquitous in many parts of southeast Asia, it’s also grown extensively in parts of Africa, Brazil, the Caribbean, Florida, and Australia, with some found in Mexico. It thrives in areas below 1000 m high, with 1000-3000 mm of annual rainfall, on a wide variety of soils, as long as they don’t become waterlogged. It can even take a light frost (0 C), and can survive extended drought, especially if given some irrigation to help it establish for the first year.
Jackfruit is a medium sized tree, generally 8-25 m tall, and can grow over 1.5 m/year for its first 5 years. As an open-pollinated species, trees grown from seed are very variable in size, shape, and fruit quality. However, many different cultivated varieties exist, and there are generally two main types: one with a thin, mushy, sweet pulp, and another with thick, firm, crisp and less sweet pulp.
Jackfruit trees usually take four to fourteen years to bear fruit, and can keep producing for over one hundred, or even three hundred years. They generally yield between 150 and 250 pounds per tree per year, making it an ideal fruit for subsistence plots. Jackfruit trees are evergreen and respond very well to cutting and pruning. You may need to prune the bottom branches as the tree grows, but besides that, it needs very little labor inputs.
Jackfruit is used in many different ways at Finca Bona Fide. Our main jackfruit orchard is a developing food forest centered around the fruit. It is intercropped with a variety of other fruit trees, including mangoes, citrus, and bread of life, all of which will form the main canopy layer. In narrow spaces between jackfruit tree crowns, coconut, peach, and thatch palms are planted, so that their narrow crowns will eventually shoot past the jackfruit canopy, receiving all of the sunlight they need while providing little sun competition with the jackfruit trees.
In the more open spaces between trees, shade-tolerant plants, including cacao and kandis, begin to fill in the understory, taking advantage of the shade cast by the jackfruit trees. As the system grows, the bottom layer will be filled with roots including taro, ginger, and tumeric. In order to define paths and utilize the sunlit edges they create, all of paths running throughout the orchard are lined with pitanga bushes, a deliciously sour berry. Fertility for the orchard is supplied on site through a nitrogen-fixing tree coppice system that fills the open spaces between trees, palms and shrubs. While the system is young and still developing, it is on its way to become a functional food forest that can provide dietary staples, fresh fruit, value-added products, and an infinite diversity of other uses.
Elsewhere on the farm, jackfruit is used as a windbreak. A line of jackfruit, neem, and native fruit trees protect emerging ojoche (Brosimium alicastrum) orchard, and a triple line of jackfruit protects a young multi-species nut orchard. Jackfruit is also scattered throughout this other property - it’s the perfect tree here because we have no water access, and the trees need little water.
Jackfruit and Food Security
Jackfruit, with its diversity of edible yields, resilience, and self-maintenance, has incredible potential for building local food security in the tropics. There has been a recent resurgence of interest in jackfruit in Kerala, India, where it was once a dietary staple. While the tree has recently declined in popularity there, a number of farmers, NGOs, and government agencies are beginning to come back to the fruit. At yearly jackfruit festivals, people gather to celebrate the diverse uses and cultural heritage of jackfruit, to preserve its diverse genetics, and to eat, spread, and popularize the fruit. K R Jayan spends his time traveling around southern India on a three-wheeler planting jackfruit trees - the Johnny Appleseed of jackfruit.
While Jayan is having great success, and knows that the trees he plants will eventually be used, our situation in Nicaragua is different. No one’s ever eaten or seen jackfruit on Ometepe, save one farmer near Merida. As a weird-looking, strange-tasting, unique fruit, we need to introduce it to people first and see whether or not they like the taste (and/or economic potential) of the tree before we attempt to spread it too much, or we’ll end up with another noni - planted everywhere, used nowhere, rots on the ground and smells awful.
Luckily, people are starting to enjoy jackfruit. Every time I harvest and process a fruit, our local staff come over to take a piece of the flesh. The last time I started processing, Clemencia ran over, grabbed a piece, and stuffed another in her daughter’s mouth. “Es rico!” she managed to say between bites. People are asking for and planting jackfruit seedlings in their gardens and on their farms. Because jackfruit grows columnarly and produces here within 6 years, it doesn’t compete with growing space of other plants too much until it begins producing. In fact, if jackfruit is used properly - as a windbreak or to stabilize a slope, it can actually increase the production of other crops despite taking up space.
People are also interested in it for its economic potential. We are getting a very good price for the seeds, and are beginning to develop our jackfruit jams. As the community commercial kitchen approaches completion, we plan on moving large-scale processing there - jamming and canning different products from the Finca and from town for sale throughout Nicaragua. At the same time, we are recruiting local farmers who have a little extra land and supplying them with seedlings of jackfruit and other tree crops, the products of which they will sell directly to Mano Amiga’s commercial kitchen. The kitchen will then process the ripe fruit into hummus, jams, chutneys, and other deliciousness to sell throughout Ometepe and Nicaragua. Thus begins the Ometepe Jackfruit Revolution, lead through Mano Amiga’s community kitchen.
The kitchen also hosts our other main method of spreading the Revolution. We plan to start using jackfruit - the fruit and seed products - in Cafe Enfantil, our children’s nutritional programs run out of Proyecto Mano Amiga. You know, get em while their young. Get em hooked on this takes-like-juicy fruit, chickpea-and-meat-substitute, Buddhist-robe-making, easy to grow wonder tree. Most kids that try it at the farm like it already, now we just need to get it into more hungry young mouths. Then their families can plant it, knowing full well that their growing child’s belly will be overflowing with food in five years time.
Maybe one day we’ll have our own Jackfruit Festival in Balgue. Or, rather, we’ll have our jackfruit quinciera, a jackfruit coming-of-age party. We’ll feature that full three-course meal made of jackfruit and spend the rest of the day jamming, peeling, drying, processing jackfruit into a diversity of forms. As night comes we’ll have a dance party fueled by jackfruit wine, and spend the next morning recovering with jackfruit - the pulp and seeds are used to cure hangovers in Chinese medicine.
As lots of people in India are beginning to understand, jackfruit is an incredibly important tree for community food security. Jayan, explaining why he‘s planting jackfruit en masse around Kerala, says that “If it wasn’t for jackfruit many villages in Kerala would’ve starved in the days before Gulf remittances started flowing into the state.” As we enter a time of global economic and climatic uncertainty, coupled with the economic, environmental, and political issues that already exist in Nicaragua and much of the world, we need the most resilient, the most useful, the most solid, the most easy-to-grow food crops we can find. Jackfruit is an archetype of this. A true permaculture rock star, a tree for Saving Planets.
The more we can spread it through Ometepe, through Nicaragua, through Central America, the more de-facto food and economic security we can introduce, and that’s really what it’s all about.
But first we need to show people, to get them to like it, to plant it. Sharing the fruit with anyone interested helps. Exposing it to the younger generation helps. Maximizing the economic potential of jackfruit helps. Hopefully rambling about jackfruit as long as I have helps.
If you made it through all this babbling about a weird tree, maybe you agree with me that this is the most hopeful photo I’ve ever taken:
If that wasn't enough,
here's more information on jackfruit: