Wednesday | November 22, 2017
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UH seeking volunteers to study breadfruit trees

University of Hawaii researchers need the help of Big Island residents to gather information about the natural cycles of breadfruit trees.

Assistant professor Noa Lincoln and graduate student Blair Langston of the University of Hawaii at Manoa recently launched the Breadfruit Phenology Catalog, a crowdsourcing initiative to gather data about the traditional Hawaiian fruit.

“There’s not a lot of information about ulu out there,” Langston said, using the Hawaiian word for breadfruit. “It’s pretty understudied.”

In light of the dearth of ulu data, Lincoln started the project to create a map of ulu phenology — their periodic cycles and how they are influenced — throughout the state.

The project seeks to help farmers, vendors and customers statewide to better understand the flowering and fruiting cycles of the trees by gathering data about trees on the major islands.

Any Hawaii resident can apply to participate in the project online. After applying, residents are asked to “adopt” an ulu tree for continual observation — any tree will do, so long as it is easily and regularly accessible. To adopt a tree, participants must be able to note its location, sun exposure, estimated age and height and its diameter at breast height.

After adopting a tree, participants are asked to submit information about its status every two weeks.

Langston said the project does not require advanced arborical or botanical knowledge. Rather, participants are simply tasked with recording the presence of flowers, the number of immature and mature fruit, how many fruits have fallen and how many have been harvested.

“It should take 10 minutes at most,” Langston said.

Participants are requested to submit data for at least one year, although the study is intended to extend for multiple years. Langston said reminder emails can keep participants from forgetting to submit updates, but noted that occasional lapses will not scuttle the project.

“The more data we have, the better, obviously,” Langston said.

Lincoln noted that ulu is highly sensitive to its local climate, to the point where ulu farmers can use the trees’ changes as a weather calendar. However, because of the lack of scientific data on the trees, it is unclear precisely how environmental changes affect ulu phenology.

Donna Shapiro, manager of the Big Island Ulu Cooperative, said members of her cooperative have recorded data on ulu for the past 15 months.

“Those 15 months of data are pretty much the most that anyone’s ever collected,” Shapiro said.

Lincoln is working closely with the 30 farms of the Ulu Cooperative for the phenology project as well as additional studies. For example, Shapiro said, one such project will assess ulu’s susceptibility to pests and parasites.

“There aren’t any specific pest problems that we’re aware of, but there are also few commercial orchards, so we can’t be sure,” Shapiro said.

The nutrient-rich breadfruit is a traditional food staple in Hawaii and has a growing reputation as a superfood that might be used to alleviate global hunger. Shapiro said the 30 farms of her cooperative harvested about 55,000 fruits in the past year.

Lincoln said the potential of the breadfruit market is dependent on obtaining a thorough understanding of breadfruit cycles and how they are affected. He said the Phenology Catalog might have personal benefits as well.

“It’s good for people to grow a connection to a tree and its seasonality,” Lincoln said.

“It’s a good experience to get involved in citizen science,” Langston said. “It’s good to get a stop from your busy life to just observe nature.”

Residents interested in participating can visit

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-


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