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Published in Issue No. 142, page 1 to 9 - (38228) characters

Cultivar recognition in Micronesia: banana, breadfruit, giant swamp taro and pandanus

Lois Englberger  Maureen H. Fitzgerald  Geoffrey C. Marks  


There are many important reasons for trying to understand if and how people in a community can recognize different food cultivars. If people in the community easily recognize food cultivars, then a food-based intervention promoting a particular food cultivar is more likely to be successful. If food cultivars in a community vary greatly in nutrient content, then dietary assessments based on recall of foods eaten may be made more precise by gathering data on the food cultivar that was eaten. Thus, community cultivar recognition may contribute to greater precision in dietary assessment and in research investigating the link between diet and disease. Furthermore, cultivar recognition in a community may represent degrees of cultivar biodiversity, food security and cultural integrity.

The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) is an island country composed of four states (Pohnpei, Chuuk, Kosrae and Yap) situated in the western Pacific Ocean (Figures 1 and 2). The population is around 107 000 (Division of Statistics 2002). In FSM there are many cultivars of banana, breadfruit, giant swamp taro and pandanus (Figures 3–6) (Bascom 1946; Ragone 1988; Merlin et al. 1992, 1993, 1996; Pollock 1992; Merlin and Juvik 1996; Englberger et al. 2003e).

On the main island of Pohnpei there are 55 banana (Musa spp.), 131 breadfruit (Artocarpus spp.) and 24 giant swamp taro (Cyrtosperma chamissonis) cultivar names (Raynor 1991). On the Pohnpei outer atoll islands, including Mwoakilloa (formerly called Mokil), Pingelap, Sapwuahfik (formerly called Ngatik), Nukuoro and Kapingamarangi, there are 55 pandanus (Pandanus tectorius) cultivar names (Stone 1963; Englberger et al. 2003d) and on Kosrae, 11 have been recorded (Sarfert 1919). These cultivars vary in the different colouration of edible portion and carotenoid content, the ß-carotene content in FSM banana cultivars ranging from 30 to 6360 µg/100 g in breadfruit, from 10 to 868 µg/100 g, in giant swamp taro, from 50 to 2040 µg/100 g (Englberger et al., 2003b,f) and in pandanus from 19 to 393 µg/100 g (Englberger et al. 2003a).

Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is a problem of public health significance in all four FSM states (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2001). Chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer, are also serious problems (Coyne 2000; Shmulewitz et al. 2001). Foods rich in provitamin A carotenoids may protect against VAD. Epidemiological evidence suggests that carotenoid-rich food also protects against certain chronic diseases (World Cancer Research Fund 1997; Ford et al. 1999; Bertram 2002; Mares-Perlman et al. 2002). Therefore, consumption of carotenoid-rich food cultivars may alleviate these nutritional diseases.

However, in the last 30 years, there has been a great decrease in production and consumption of these foods in FSM (Elymore et al. 1989), and there is concern that cultivar recognition and knowledge of local foods is being lost (Raynor 1991; Debunce 1996; Lee et al. 2001).

Thus, a study was carried out in FSM to explore community cultivar recognition of selected staple foods that may represent familiarity with these foods and could potentially contribute to a healthy diet, and which may also provide the potential for greater precision in dietary assessment, biodiversity, food security and cultural identity.

Materials and methods

The study on cultivar recognition of FSM staple foods was part of an overall study to identify vitamin A-rich foods (Englberger 2003) and used ethnographic methods selected from guidelines developed for studies of this type (Blum et al. 1997; Fitzgerald 1997). A focus was on banana, breadfruit, giant swamp taro and pandanus, the FSM staple foods with the greatest carotenoid potential, based on the yellow and orange colouration of the edible portion. A literature review gathered past documentation of the food cultivars. Here we present data from three groups of informants: community informants from various sources and informants from two specific groups, i.e. college students of the College of Micronesia (COM)-FSM Pohnpei Campus, and child caretakers (mostly women) from Kosrae.

The names of the cultivars are presented in the local language as reported by the informants. This included the following local languages: Pohnpei, Mwoakilloa, Pingelap, Sapwuahfik, Kapingamarangi, Nukuoro, Kosrae, Chuuk and Yap (main island).

The community informants (n=91 males and 55 females aged from 17 to 86 years) participated in semi-structured key informant interviews and informal focus group discussions conducted from September 2001 to February 2003 in Pohnpei and Kosrae. Data were collected on the cultivars most readily recognized and by whom, how the cultivars were identified and marketing practices. Because of the resources available, the study was carried out only in Pohnpei and Kosrae, but included interviews of informants from the Mortlocks Islands (outer islands of Chuuk), lagoon islands of Chuuk, Pohnpei outer atoll islands and Yap. In FSM, many families still grow their own foods, and thus information on food cultivars could be obtained from informants from many occupations, in addition to full-time farmers, agriculture officers and shop-keepers selling local produce. Most interviews were carried out in English, as participants spoke English in addition to their island language. Agriculture officers translated some of the interviews.

In March and December 2002, two groups of students at the COM-FSM Pohnpei Campus (n=31 males and 62 females) were asked to complete a 15 min classroom assignment were they were to list all banana, breadfruit, giant swamp taro and pandanus cultivar names that they knew. Students were asked to write down the names without talking to others. The manner in which the two groups were asked to list the cultivars was similar, except that, in December, a formatted questionnaire form was provided and data were collected for pandanus and giant swamp taro; whereas in March, data were collected only for banana and breadfruit. Errors such as cultivars listed twice, cooking methods or cultivar groups listed as cultivars and doubtful and duplicate names were deleted in consultation with expert informants. An effort was made to confirm the existence of cultivars with previous documentation (Lieber and Dikepa 1974; Harrison and Albert 1977; Jensen 1977; Rehg and Sohl 1979; Ragone 1988; Goodenough and Sugita 1990; Raynor 1991) and spellings were reconciled similarly. Efforts were also made to understand the meanings and sources of the cultivar names. The data were entered into Microsoft Excel and the SPSS version 10.0 statistical package. Analyses included identifying the number of students listing the particular cultivar and assessing for cultivar recognition differences by age, gender and cultural group.

Structured questionnaires were administered in 2001 to a population-based group of randomly-selected child caretakers in Kosrae (n=266 females and 1 male) to investigate cultivar recognition of selected cultivars of banana, breadfruit and giant swamp taro (Englberger 2003). In addition, a 7-day food frequency questionnaire was administered to the same caretakers that asked, out of the last 7 days, how many days did they and their children eat 34 food items which included the selected cultivars. A sub-sample of the child caretakers (n=65 females) was given three 24-h recalls, inquiring about all that they and their children had consumed in the last 24 h. As part of this exercise, people were asked to identify the cultivars of banana and pandanus consumed. The data were entered into Microsoft Excel and SPSS version 10.0 for statistical analysis.

Results and discussion

Descriptions, photographs and illustrations of Micronesian banana, breadfruit, giant swamp taro and pandanus can be found in previous papers (Englberger et al. 2003a,b,d,f). A literature review, coupled with key informant interviews, showed that there is a lack of local food cultivar documentation to which any cultivar data could be compared. For example, there was no current listing of the cultivars of banana (or other foods) for any of the island groups of FSM. There was a listing of banana, giant swamp taro and breadfruit cultivars for the main island of Pohnpei, but this was out-of-date and did not include the outer Pohnpei islands. In addition, pandanus cultivars were not listed. Thus, in order to understand cultivar recognition in Pohnpei, informants helped to update the food cultivar list and described how cultivars are recognized. In this paper, we first present data using categories indicated by the community informants. These include: differences by geographic site and cultural group, appearance, use, and other characteristics. We then present data on the degree of cultivar recognition among the college students and information from Kosrae caretakers on particular cultivars and the names of the cultivars of banana and pandanus they had eaten.

It was noted that when comparing the standard crop descriptors available for banana and breadfruit (CIRAD/INIBAP/IPGRI 1996; The Breadfruit Institute 2004), to those used by the informants, similar characteristics were used by the informants to describe these two crops.

Recognition by geographic site and cultural groups

Informants indicated that there was a high level of diversity within banana and breadfruit cultivars on the mountain islands of FSM, including Pohnpei; that this diversity was important; and that cultivar recognition for these foods was very developed. Community informants reported that Mortlockese and Pohnpei outer-islanders had a great deal of expertise in giant swamp taro cultivar recognition and that Pohnpei outer-islanders, in particular from Kapingamarangi, were expert at recognizing pandanus cultivars.

Recognition by appearance, use, and other characteristics

One factor affecting cultivar recognition was whether the foods are normally consumed raw or cooked. Banana and pandanus are commonly eaten raw and are better recognized by the raw fruits. All but one cultivar of breadfruit and all giant swamp taro cultivars are eaten peeled and cooked. Cultivar recognition is more difficult with the cooked foods.

Banana cultivars are described in FSM by the individual fruits (shape; size; skin colour; skin toughness; taste; smell; flesh colour); the bunch on which the individual fruits grow (shape; size; if growing erect or drooping); the hands (the groups of banana fruits on the bunch; size; appearance); the plant (size; stem colour; leaf; time for flowering and harvesting; susceptibility to disease; growth characteristics); medicinal, ceremonial and recipe uses; legends; and marketing practices. On Kosrae, in particular, cultivars are classified as either eating or cooking bananas; customarily this grouping is strictly held. Some bananas (including ‘Preisihl’) are also used for medicine, i.e. the juice of the stem is used for treating injuries. ‘Karat’ (Figure 1) has a high cultural value as it may be used in the annual ceremonial first-fruit presentations to traditional leaders. Certain banana cultivars are preferred for various recipes, for example, the Kosrae ‘Taiwang’ and ‘Usr en Yeir’ are used for the traditional fafa recipe and ‘Usr Kufafa’ (‘Utin Menihle’) is used for turnovers, pies and many other recipes. It should be noted that banana is 'Usr' in Kosraean but 'Uht' in Pohnpeian. Banana cultivars in Kosrae and Pohnpei are often referred to using a preceding word, 'Uht' or 'Usr'; however, this part of the name is dropped for some cultivars. Two banana cultivars, the Kosrae ‘Usr Kulasr’ (Pohnpei ‘Karat’) and the Pohnpei ‘Utin Iap’ (Kosrae ‘Usr Kolontol’), are important in legends. Both cultivars were also reported to have health benefits,Karat’ being important as an infant food and ‘Usr Kolontol’ to strengthen mothers after giving birth. Banana cultivars were also distinguished by price differences; cultivars marketed for eating raw were usually priced higher. The market survey showed that only a few banana cultivars are marketed in Pohnpei and Kosrae.

Breadfruit cultivars in FSM are distinguished by the presence or absence of seeds. Seeded breadfruit, Artocarpus mariannensis, is grown mostly on atoll islands; unseeded breadfruit, A. Altilis, are more important on Pohnpei and other mountainous islands. The ripe flesh of seeded breadfruit can be eaten raw and the cooked seeds can be eaten. A Kosrae legend indicates that seeded breadfruit is the original Kosrae breadfruit from which other cultivars were developed. Informants also described breadfruit by the skin (if smooth or rough), edible portion, taste, size, shape and colour, skin colour and plant characteristics (tree height, leaf shape, lobed or rounded). Kosrae informants indicated that although there are many breadfruit cultivars; most people are familiar with four of them. The market survey indicated that although Pohnpei and Kosrae markets sell breadfruit when in season, there are only a few cultivars marketed. Informants indicated that it is difficult to distinguish many cultivars unless the stem and leaf are attached.

Giant swamp taro cultivars are distinguished by stem colour, presence of thorns on the stems, corm and plant size, growth characteristics, leaf characteristics, edible portion colour, hardness, fibrousness and taste. Informants reported that people commonly cultivating giant swamp taro, such as the Mortlockese, are very skilled in cultivar recognition. Men in Pohnpei, Kosrae and parts of Chuuk are more familiar with giant swamp taro cultivars than women because it is the men who plant it; whereas in Yap and other parts of Chuuk, it is women who cultivate this food and are, thus, more familiar with cultivar names. Giant swamp taro was marketed in small amounts in Pohnpei, but was named only as 'mwahng' because market staff are not familiar with cultivars. In Kosrae and outer islands of Pohnpei and Chuuk, giant swamp taro is not marketed.

Pandanus plants are grouped into those with edible and inedible fruits (the latter causes an itchiness in the mouth if chewed). Pandanus cultivars are distinguished by the keys (the individual pandanus fruits on the bunch), their colour, shape, size, taste, fibrousness, if they have an edible nut, fall off the bunch when ripe, height of the tree, bunch size and colouring. People on the main island of Pohnpei do not recognize different pandanus cultivars, but they do use two different terms for pandanus, 'kipar' and 'deipw'. Some people using one term were not familiar with the other term. As for marketing, two main cultivars of pandanus are marketed in Kosrae. On the outer islands of Pohnpei there is no organized marketing of pandanus (or other food crops). One informant from Kapingamarangi added, “We don’t sell it, we share it”. Pandanus was marketed in Pohnpei, but there was no recognition of cultivars by market staff.

Informants explained that introduced bananas are often named after the place from which the banana was brought, or after the person introducing the banana. They noted that this can also be true for introduced breadfruit, giant swamp taro and pandanus cultivars. The meaning or origin of many of the cultivar names was not known by informants. However, the names of some of the giant swamp taro were descriptive of the cultivars. For example, ‘Sounpwongwenou’, meaning '6-months', refers to its fast growth and ‘Mwahng Tekatik’ ('mwahng' meaning giant swamp taro and 'takatik' meaning thorns) refers to the thorns on the lower part of its stem.

Informants stressed that along with the shift to the consumption of imported foods, knowledge of local foods and cultivars is being lost and, as our data demonstrate, the younger generation is less familiar with different cultivars of local staple foods. Some cultivars have also become rare; many indicated that they had heard of some of the rare cultivars but had not seen or tasted them.

Cultivar recognition by college students

Cultivar recognition was investigated among 93 COM–FSM Pohnpei campus students, 38 in March 2002 and 55 in December 2002 (Table 1; Appendices 1–4). The average age of the first group was 20 years (ranging from 18 to 24 years), and the average age of the second group was 21 years (ranging from 17 to 37 years). Only a few students were older than 24 years, and thus comparison of cultivar recognition between age groups was not possible. There were more female than male students in both classes (Table 1), which is common in these college classes as reported by informants. The students were from Pohnpei (n=67), Pingelap (n=10), Mwoakilloa (n=4), Kapingamarangi (n=3), Sapwuahfik (n=3), Chuuk lagoon and Mortlock islands (n=4), Yap (n=1) and Kosrae (n=1).

There was a large number of cultivar names listed. After correcting for errors, a total of 49 banana, 71 breadfruit, 26 giant swamp taro, and 17 pandanus cultivar names were listed (Appendices 1–4). Because of the diversity of cultivars, languages and cultural groups represented in the two classes (nine languages and cultural groups), lack of inclusive cultivar lists and lack of marketing of most cultivars, the review of the cultivar names was difficult. Draft lists were shown to expert informants who advised on the cultivars they knew and which names should be included as distinct cultivar names. The expert informants pointed out that a further study for documenting currently existing cultivars of FSM staple foods would be needed in order to confirm whether some names listed were cultivars or not. It is likely that there are some cultivars that carry different names in the different islands. However, it is likely that, particularly for Pohnpei, the list of cultivar names (Appendixes 1–4) represents different cultivars because most were in the inclusive list by Raynor (1991) and expert informants were familiar with most or had heard of them. The cultivar names are presented in order of those most frequently reported and labelled by origin according to the island on which they were reported, in order to present cultivar names and recognition per ethnic group.

In addition to combining the results of both classes for analysis, the data were reviewed separately to investigate differences between the March and December groups. For the banana and breadfruit cultivars most frequently listed, the listing was similar between the groups. Seven of the ten most frequently listed banana cultivars were among the ten most frequently listed cultivars in both the March and December groups indicating consistency in cultivar recognition between the two groups.

Considering that consumption of local food is decreasing among the younger generation, expert informants expressed their surprise at the relatively high number of banana and breadfruit cultivars listed by these students (mean of eight banana and five breadfruit cultivars listed per student). The results were also analyzed separately for the two classes, showing a higher mean number of banana and breadfruit cultivars listed by the December group. In that group, there was a mean of nine banana and five breadfruit cultivars listed per student, compared with a mean of seven banana and four breadfruit cultivars listed per student in the March group. Of the Pohnpei students, the mean number of banana cultivars listed per student was ten, compared with a mean of seven cultivars listed by other students. The greater number listed per student in the December group may be partly caused by the formatted questionnaire form, which left spaces for ten cultivar names, whereas in the March group, students were asked to write down the names on a blank sheet of paper. The ten spaces on the formatted form may have motivated students to try harder to list ten cultivar names as the mode number reported was ten.

A greater number and range of banana cultivars was listed, compared with breadfruit, despite the greater cultivar diversity of breadfruit (Table 1). The maximum number of banana cultivars listed per student was 19 (for breadfruit it was 10).

Students were less familiar with giant swamp taro and pandanus cultivars compared with banana and breadfruit cultivars and this corresponds with the cultivar diversity of those foods and the ethnic backgrounds of the students (mostly Pohnpeian). After deleting group names for pandanus ('kipar' and 'deipw'), and other names such as 'kipar en wel' (“wild pandanus”), that may include different cultivars, there were no specific cultivar names reported by any Pohnpei student. The use of the two terms for pandanus ('kipar' and 'deipw') was also examined. All students who listed 'deipw' only (not listing both names) resided in the Madolenihm area of the island.

Table 1 presents the results of student cultivar recognition for the four food types, comparing gender. Male students listed a greater number of cultivars for banana, breadfruit and giant swamp taro than female students. This was expected as Pohnpei informants said that men in Pohnpei most often cultivate these crops and were more familiar with cultivars.

It should be noted that this exercise of asking students to list the food cultivars depends on memory. It is very likely that many Pohnpeians have eaten or have at least heard of more banana and breadfruit cultivars than the mean number listed by the students. For example, in another context, a female Pohnpeian informant around 40 years old (other than the expert informants) was asked which cultivars she knew. Using the list generated from the students, she reported that, of the 30 Pohnpei banana cultivar names (Appendix 1), she had eaten or heard of 23. Of the 37 Pohnpei breadfruit cultivars named by the students (Appendix 2), she had eaten or heard of 20. She had heard of 6 of the 18 Pohnpei giant swamp taro cultivars and had not heard of any Pohnpei cultivar names for pandanus.

Other data on cultivar recognition

Table 2 presents the results of the questions about food cultivars asked of 267 randomly-selected Kosrae caretakers aged 17–74 years (all but one was female). Further details of this sample group and the data collected is documented elsewhere (Englberger 2003). The caretakers were asked if they had heard of and/or eaten selected cultivars of banana, giant swamp taro and breadfruit. These had recently been found to contain significant quantities of pro-vitamin A carotenoids (Englberger et al. 2003b,f), but some were rare. The questions were asked in order to assist in planning possible interventions promoting these cultivars. All caretakers had heard of the common banana cultivar ‘Taiwang’ and most had eaten it. Most had heard of the cultivar ‘Usr Kulasr’ (Pohnpei ‘Karat’) but less than half had eaten it. In general, knowledge was poor regarding the other carotenoid-rich cultivars. These and a few other local foods were used to construct a score on knowledge of local foods, which was then correlated with caretaker age. There was a moderate association between knowledge of the foods and age (Pearson correlation coefficient=0.42), giving some indication of the loss of knowledge of local foods among the younger generation.

Data on consumption of particular cultivars of banana were collected in a 7-day food frequency questionnaire administered to the same 267 randomly-selected caretakers in Kosrae (Englberger 2003). They were asked which cultivars of banana they had eaten in the last 7 days. The caretakers indicated confidently that they knew which cultivars they had eaten. These included ‘Usr Kufafa’ (Pohnpei ‘Utin Menihle’). Almost half (n=133) of the group reported eating it. Six other cultivars were mentioned, ‘Usr Apat Regular’, ‘Apat Fusus’, ‘Taiwang’, ‘Lakatan’, ‘Malok’ and ‘Kulasr’. In the three 24-hour recalls carried out on a sub-sample of these caretakers (n=65, all women), there was also no difficulty in reporting banana or pandanus (‘Mweng Choipep’ or ‘Masal’) cultivars eaten.


These data indicate that, despite the trend in FSM towards consumption of imported foods, there is still considerable knowledge of locally grown staple food cultivars of banana, breadfruit, giant swamp taro and pandanus. The data indicated that food cultivars are recognized by a complex set of characteristics (i.e. fruit size, shape, colour, taste, smell, texture, plant growth and other characteristics). Community recognition varied by food type, cultivar diversity, geographic site, cultural group, state of food eaten (raw or cooked) and the age and gender of the person.

People were most familiar with different banana cultivars. Considering the great range in carotenoid content in FSM banana cultivars and the importance of banana as a staple food, the collection of data on the particular banana cultivar eaten may help to increase the precision of dietary intake estimates. It is likely that people would understand messages in media campaigns promoting particular banana cultivars. An example of a promotion of a banana cultivar in FSM is the ‘Karat’ banana promotion which was considered successful despite its short duration (Englberger 2002). Promotions of particular cultivars of breadfruit and giant swamp taro may be successful among those groups who are involved in growing them, but it is unlikely that dietary assessments could be improved by attempting to collect data on the cultivars eaten. Pandanus cultivars are not well recognized in Pohnpei, but Kosrae women easily named the cultivar that they had eaten. Thus, collecting data on the pandanus cultivar eaten in Kosrae may be useful for improving dietary estimates and communications on pandanus cultivars in a promotion campaign may be understood.

This study showed that there is a need for up-to-date inclusive lists of the food cultivars of the different island groups of FSM, including documentation of cultivar information. Because of the potentially increasing loss of knowledge of locally grown foods and some concern over the loss of some food cultivars, there is a need for urgency in documenting this information. Such research is important for improving food security and health improvement and preserving cultural identity.

This study also has relevance for other countries in the Pacific and elsewhere where these foods are eaten and where many food cultivars are commonly eaten. A global review of carotenoid-rich bananas has shown that there are many countries in the world where a number of banana cultivars of different coloured edible portions are grown (Englberger et al. 2003c). Giant swamp taro and breadfruit cultivars are important foods throughout the Pacific. There are many cultivars of pandanus commonly consumed in the Marshall Islands and Kiribati (Pollock 1992), countries where VAD is a serious problem (Palafox 1995; Schaumberg et al. 1995). Finally, this study showed that an ethnographic approach to understanding cultivar recognition is important and offers a means of gathering data for developing food-based interventions that may not be possible by other research methods.


Most of the data for this paper was collected as part of the primary researcher’s PhD research project at the University of Queensland (UQ). Acknowledgement is made to UQ for the provision of the International Post-graduate Research Scholarship for the PhD project. Acknowledgement is also given to the Task Force Sight and Life, Thrasher Research Foundation, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for funds provided to support the research. Acknowledgement is made to Remos Livaie and others at the Kosrae Department of Agriculture, Procula Jackson, Julie Timothy, Dr Eliuel Pretrick, Kipier Lippwe, Silas Henry, Adelino Lorens, Bill Raynor and the Kapingamarangi carvers in Pohnpei, along with many others for information on the local food cultivars, and to Fran Chaine for her data collection assistance at the College of Micronesia-FSM, Pohnpei Campus.


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Appendices References

Goodenough WH, Sugita H. 1990. Trukese–English dictionary. Supplementary volume: English Trukese and index of Trukese word roots. American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, USA.

Harrison SP, Albert S. 1977. Mokilese–English dictionary. The University Press of Hawaii, Honolulu, USA.

Lieber MD, Dikepa KH. 1974. Kapingamarangi lexicon. The University Press of Hawaii, Honolulu, USA.

Ragone D. 1988. Breadfruit varieties in the Pacific Atolls. International Atoll Development Project, United Nations Development Programme, Suva, Fiji.

Raynor B. 1991. Agroforestry systems in Pohnpei—practices and strategies for development. RAS/86/036 Field Document 4. FAO/UNDP South Pacific Forestry Development Programme, Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia.

Rehg KL, Sohl DG. 1979. Ponapean–English dictionary. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA.




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