Jack of all trees
Kiran Narain

The jackfruit is an evergreen fruit tree
The jackfruit is an evergreen fruit tree

The jackfruit tree or artocarpus intergra (Fam—moraceae) is a large, evergreen fruit tree with a long history. A native of the forests of Western Ghats, it is extensively cultivated throughout warmer regions of India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. There are several references to this tree in ancient texts like Charak Samhita and the Jatak Tales and the fruit is depicted in an ancient Buddhist sculpture at Bharhut. The Chinese traveller Huen Tsang called it by its Sanskrit name phanas and Ludovico di Varthema, who came to the subcontinent in the beginning of 16th century AD, was fascinated by its muskmelon-like sweetness. While Ibn Batuta is said to have loved it, Babar is said to have hated it. Even today, there is a colony in South Mumbai known as Phanaswadi or the garden of Jackfruits.

Known as kathal in Hindi and chacka in Malayalam, jackfruit is perhaps the largest edible fruit in the world which hangs from branches, trunk and even on old trees’ roots. A fast growing evergreen tree of great beauty, it varies in size according to the type of soil; in sandy soil it becomes tall and spreading while in stony soil it remains short and thick. The glossy leaves grow alternately in close bunches at the end of the branches. The leaves are quite large, oblong in shape, thick and leathery. They are deep green and glossy on surface but paler and stiffly hirsute below. Male and female flowers are separate but are borne on the same tree usually in the months of February and March. The bark is dark grey-brown, rough and warty.

The enormous fruits, sometimes as much as 40 kg in weight, are irregularly round or oval and look like parasites clinging to the trunk. The rough skin is covered with innumerable conical studs. When green, the fruits are used as a vegetable, which is much valued for its fibrous texture that is uncannily close to meat, and lends itself to making excellent vegetarian biryanis and kebabs or even pickles.

The trees are planted, normally, during the monsoons about 20-25 ft apart. At least a couple of these should be planted in any garden of reasonable size to enjoy its evergreen beauty as well as vegetables and fruits for your table.