That last fact is thanks to, naturally, David Fairchild, the legendary plant man whose legacy is carried by Fairchild Tropical Garden on Old Cutler Road, where the ovaries of the jackfruit tree will be celebrated this Saturday with Just Jackfruit, a presentation featuring tastings, lectures, and graft and plant sales. Jacks are thought to be indigenous to India; Fairchild picked his up in Ceylon. In the East the plant has been popular for thousands of years. Over the past century, despite its many good traits, the mulberry-family member has failed to supplant oranges and mangoes and other run-of-the-mill tropical delicacies readily available in South Florida.
Although it was Fairchild who planted the seed, it is Dr. Richard J. Campbell, the garden's curator of tropical fruit, who has budded the bloom. During the past seven years he has expanded the jackfruit collection from "a small core" into one of the finest in the world. "I don't want to call it the finest," he says, suggesting by his tone that such an inference wouldn't bother him much.
Campbell says the fruit's lack of acceptance can be blamed on cultural familiarity. A limited number was introduced, and the cultivars (varieties used for grafting) were of "terrible" quality. "It's like if you grew up eating crab apples," he says. "You might be less inclined to try other apples. You have to start with good genetic materials."
More specifically, Campbell notes that the aroma of jacks can be "offensive," the flavor overwhelmingly "sweet," and the outward appearance "unusual." The cultivars available now have toned down the strong odor and the sugary taste. The outward appearance, however, remains ugly: blobby and green with spikes. "There's nothing subtle about jackfruit," he adds.
The garden has 28 cultivars represented by about 80 or 90 fruit-bearing trees. Campbell travels all over the world seeking the latest, greatest hybridizations and mutations. "This year we collected seven new cultivars from Thailand," he says, adding that Thailand and Australia are producing the varieties most suitable to South Florida.
Having grown up in South Florida, Campbell admits he was never a fan of the fruit. "I thought they were horrible, at best a curiosity." Thanks to an education, coming primarily from his Asian friends, Campbell says he often cuts up some jack and puts the chunks in a bowl of ice as an appetizer for guests. "It makes an elegant appetizer or dessert," he suggests. "And the more you work with it, the more you find it has 101 uses. It's not quite as versatile as the mango, but it is versatile."
Jackfruit flesh can be served instead of a vegetable accompaniment, made into preserves and chutneys, and curried. The seeds can be roasted and ground into a paste. "When it's firm and green, it's more like a meat," Campbell explains. "They do some very interesting things with it and seafood in places like Malaysia."
The jacks typically reach 30 or 40 pounds; Campbell has heard about a 150-pound specimen and seen numerous 70 and 80 pounders. That's a lot of jack. Campbell and his associates don't grow for large size, though one of Fairchild's weighed 51 pounds.
Only recently has Campbell seen the fruits of his labors. "It's being commercially grown [in Miami-Dade County and elsewhere]," he says. "We've distributed thousands of seedlings and grafts, including three or four thousand actual trees, over the past five years. It's coming into its own." Now that's cool.