Issue 12.4: August/September 2009

Tree of Plenty

story by Julia Steele
photos by Jack Wolford

Diane Ragone—who stands just over 5 feet tall with huge blue eyes and wispy golden curls—looks more like a fairy queen than one of the world’s great botanical adventurers. She has no horn-rimmed spectacles, khaki camouflage jacket or ManFriday. But no matter; looks often deceive, and in this case the proof is in the plants. For them Diane has hopped a freighter to Tokelau in the midst of a typhoid epidemic. She braved a hurricane in a remote corner of the Solomon Islands. She wound up in a far-flung village in Fiji, crowded into a hut facing a stern group of elders around a massive kava bowl. “What is she here for?” they quizzed her translator and guide. He explained. Rapid-fire Fijian ensued on both sides. Finally the elders leaned back, satisfied and ready to drink kava.

“What did they say?” Diane whispered to her guide.

“They will help you,” he whispered back, “but they would never let their daughters do what you are doing.”

What Diane was doing—as the guide had told the elders—was traveling the Pacific collecting different varieties of breadfruit trees. But that succinct synopsis offers only the barest outline of a fantastic botanical odyssey. Diane has spent over twenty years tracking breadfruit; she’s collected on fifty islands across the Pacific, from sandy sun-blasted atolls in the Mortlocks to stark and rainy volcanic outcroppings in the Marquesas. She has gathered material from hundreds of breadfruit trees—root cuttings mostly, seeds from the rare trees that had them—and brought that material back to Hawai‘i, where she carefully coaxed it to grow into flourishing little trees. When the trees were hardy enough, she took them to Maui’s isolated east coast. There, on a 10-acre plot outside of Hana, she has now assembled the world’s largest collection of breadfruit varieties: 267 trees representing an astonishing 120 different varieties. Wander among the trees and their diversity is obvious: trunks thick and thin, leaves large and small, fruits round and oblong. Dog tags hanging from each tree identify islands of origin from Rotuma to Raiatea to Rota. Diane’s garden is a remarkable genetic treasure trove—all the more so now because thanks to the magic of modern cloning, it suddenly holds the promise of feeding vast numbers of people throughout the tropical world. Maybe Diane is a fairy queen after all.

If you’re not from around these parts—and, sadly, even if you are—you may be wondering, “Just what is breadfruit?” It is the great staple of the Pacific, the sustenance that for millennia fueled migrations west across the ocean and nourished emerging cultures. Voyagers seeking new islands would carry young breadfruit trees in their canoes, precious cargo that promised incredible bounty. Breadfruit trees will begin producing within three to five years of planting, and each can provide as much as 400 pounds of food a year: fleshy, starchy stuff that is dense and—when picked and prepared right—delicious. The taste is not easy to describe because breadfruit has no peers—certainly its English name is a misnomer for it tastes nothing like bread (in Hawaiian it’s known as ‘ulu). It’s usually compared to the potato, partly because the two are often cooked the same way (baked, boiled, steamed, fried) and partly because their flesh is similar: compact and ranging from milky white to honey yellow. But breadfruit comes off a tree, not from the soil; it is a fruit, not a tuber; and for all of its density, it somehow has a lightness to it. It is rich in all good things: vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants. When Sir Joseph Banks—an enthusiastic naturalist aboard the first of Capt. James Cook’s voyages—arrived in Tahiti in 1768, he was floored by it. Banks had come out of a world where staple foods were hard won from the earth and survival depended on laborious plowing, sowing and reaping. In Tahiti he saw trees laden with heavy green fruits, each single orb enough to feed several people at a sitting.

“These family people whose bread depends not on an annual but a perennial plant have but to climb up and gather it ready for baking from a tree,” he marveled. “Not that the trees grow here spontaneously but if a man should in the course of his life plant ten such trees … he would … completely fulfill his duty to his own as well as future generations.” It was Banks who on his return to England convinced King George III that breadfruit should be introduced in the Caribbean to feed the slaves there, thus setting in motion events that led to the most infamous mutiny in history. When Capt. William Bligh and Fletcher Christian set sail for Tahiti, they were on the same mission as Diane: to collect and propagate breadfruit trees. But breadfruit—as generations of Pacific islanders knew and as Bligh and Christian were about to discover—is not so easy to collect and propagate. They wound up spending months in Tahiti, long enough for Christian and a few others in the crew to decide that they weren’t going back and that they were taking the HMS Bounty with them.

Diane has never experienced anything as dramatic on her expeditions—though once she did arrive in Honiara to discover that a provincial minister, feeling territorial, had sent a telegram from the outer islands banning her from collecting in his district. For the most part, though, she was welcomed wherever she arrived, embraced by agricultural extension agents in Tonga, Kiribati, Palau, all over—men who accompanied her on tree hunts and proved stalwart Dr. Watsons to her detective work. She’d paved the way for their help early on, in 1985, when as a University of Hawai‘i graduate student in Samoa, she’d given a talk on breadfruit at a conference of agricultural directors from throughout the Pacific. To a one, the directors invited her to collect in their island countries—no surprise, really, for when you meet Diane it is virtually impossible not to be impressed and charmed.

I first met her in 2001, on Kaua‘i, when I was writing a story on the National Tropical Botanical Garden, where she works. She invited me to her office for tea and told me tales of breadfruit. She was, it was soon clear, unique: tough, smart, sweet and Southern, a person with the moxie to head solo into the bush but who also possessed an indelible femininity. Years later, working on this story, I found an ideal description of Diane in her own description of the breadfruit tree. I’d asked her if she thought of the spirit of the tree as masculine or feminine. “Visually, it’s pretty male-looking, between the flowers and the fruits,” she’d mused. We were sitting with Kamaui Aiona, director of the NTBG’s Hana garden, and he’d offered his opinion: “I think it’s more female-like, because it’s nurturing and graceful and abundant.” Diane smiled. “Ultimately, I think it’s female, too,” she agreed. Then she laughed. “But it’s got it all. It’s a female with cojones.”

Diane’s fascination with breadfruit had begun the year before she headed to Samoa, in a Pacific island studies class at UH. She’d decided to write her term paper on breadfruit, though she knew almost nothing of the plant at that point—certainly not that Thomas Jefferson had once tried togrow it at Monticello in her home state of Virginia and certainly not how sublime it could taste. She’d eaten it only once, in a potato salad knockoff on Kaua‘i, but the fruit had been picked too green and then cooked wrong—a double whammy (and frequent hazard in places where breadfruit has gone from being a mainstay to a novelty). But as Diane researched her paper, a whole world was revealed. “The light bulb went on,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘This is so interesting: the history, the different varieties.’ Nobody even knew how many varieties there were. And there was a need to conserve them. And I thought, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’”

She got the assignment to go to Samoa, officially to work on root crops—though she devoted whatever free time she could find to breadfruit. Samoa offered Diane her first real immersion into the plant’s world. In Hawai‘i, where breadfruit never quite gained the cultural import that it had elsewhere in the Pacific and where Western and Eastern diets now dominate, breadfruit has become a rarity—but in Samoa everyone still eats it almost daily, and most families have at least one tree in their yard. And they cook it expertly: The second time Diane ate breadfruit, it came smoky and hot, straight from being baked in the earth, a melt-in-the-mouth delight topped with freshly grated coconut cream. She was increasingly enchanted. She explored, asked questions, interviewed elders. She visited a grove of some thirty trees in Apia—the world’s largest known breadfruit collection at the time—put together from around the Pacific in the 1960s but largely abandoned by the ’80s. Inspired and determined, she decided to begin collecting right away and wrote to the NTBG in Hawai‘i, offering to gather material for their fledgling breadfruit garden in Hana. They gave her a small grant, money she used to begin work in Tokelau, the Cook Islands and Tonga. She was on her way.

Immediately she bumped up against the same issues that had bedeviled Bligh and Christian two centuries before. The reason breadfruit is so challenging to propagate is pretty basic: It’s seedless. Or at least most of it is—if you’ve ever eaten breadfruit, chances are you’ve eaten the seedless varieties, which grow throughout Polynesia and most of Micronesia. In fact, there are three distinct species, and they mark the triangle of the Pacific: breadnut (Artocarpus camansi) from Papua New Guinea, dugdug (Artocarpus mariannensis) from the Marianas Islands and what we know today as breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) throughout the rest of the Pacific. The ancestor of the breadfruit is breadnut, a spiky, seedy fruit that looks like a hedgehog. Dugdug, also seeded, is a parent to many of the breadfruit varieties in Micronesia.

As ancient people moved across the Pacific, they selected for fruit with fewer, smaller seeds and more meat. Eventually they got a true mutant: a tree that produced a fruit with no seeds at all, with an extra set of chromosomes. It was the Holy Grail: a fruit that was all flesh, all edible. But without seeds, how to keep it going? New trees sprang from the roots of the parent tree—delicate offshoots that required great care to transplant and transport. Suddenly the relationship between person and plant had become much more symbiotic. Breadfruit had been bred into dependence, and now not only did humans need the tree for survival—it needed them. Over the ensuing centuries, Pacific islanders became masters in the art of breadfruit cultivation and hybridization.

Diane had to learn propagation on the fly. She gathered material from some 136 trees and from that managed to grow thirty. She returned to Hawai‘i from Samoa determined to learn more—and to collect again once she had. She studied technique in classes at UH, traveled to the Smithsonian to learn to make herbarium specimens from tropical plant maestro Ray Fosberg. She pored over old ships’ logs, missionary accounts and horticulture reports, looking for any mention of breadfruit, compiling a list of varieties that would serve as her starting point. She wrote to the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute—a Rome-based organization with a mandate to investigate, cultivate and distribute useful food plants—and they gave her a grant of $30,000 to collect.

In 1987 she made her great odyssey across the Pacific. She was on the road for more than seven months, traveling from Moorea to Majuro, from Nuku Hiva to Yap. She collected 392 accessions: offshoots from mother trees, the rare seeds she could find (in seeded breadfruit varieties or dugdug/breadfruit hybrids). She took photographs, created specimens. She scrubbed roots in her shower in Chuuk, cajoled people in the Pohnpei airport to help her transport plant material back to Hawai‘i. She found extraordinary trees everywhere she went: a tree in Palau that was 70 feet high, a tree in Pohnpei with a trunk 6 feet wide, one in Chuuk that bore a 12-pound fruit (the average is 2).

This time her survival rates when she returned were higher—she grew 112 trees—and today as she roams the garden, she is surrounded by the progeny of her adventures. “Every single tree in here,” she says, “has a story.” She walks by a particularly large and prolific tree with scalloped dark green leaves: the Meitehid variety, one of her favorites, collected on the lush, volcanic slopes of Pohnpei’s main island. Nearby is a Meion, collected on an outer atoll in Chuuk’s lagoon with two chivalrous agricultural agents who refused to let her climb the tree. Some of her stories have a grave beauty. She stops by a variety named Atu, which she collected in the Cook Islands in 1985 from the last known tree in the country; it is now, she says, extinct in the Cooks. Later, she remembers an elderly man on Raiatea who had filled his back yard with as many varieties of breadfruit as he could find. He was generous and open and he welcomed Diane to collect. Years later she went back to Raiatea and returned to his home to find him, only to discover that he had died and many of his trees had been cut down. “But I found his wife and told her the trees were growing in Hana,” Diane remembers, “and she started to cry.”

That first time I met Diane, long before I knew any of these stories, she’d invited me to Hana. “Come out,” she’d said, “see the garden.” I was keen to learn more about her work. And there was the breadfruit itself, a food I’d loved ever since I first ate it as a girl in Majuro—and a food that was sorely difficult to find in Honolulu. Diane had described (in tantalizing detail) her favorite way to cook breadfruit—in nachos—and offered to make them for me when I got to Hana. We’d concocted the idea of a whole breadfruit retreat; we would spend days together in the garden and evenings cooking—the best way, said Diane, to get a sense of the contrasts between varieties. But years passed, and the retreat remained little more than wishful thinking until last fall when out of the blue Diane sent an e-mail titled “great things happening with breadfruit.”

“I’ll be in Hana September 23-26,” she wrote. “It’s the peak of the breadfruit season so lots of fruit to sample.” I bought my ticket.

In the garden we harvested a variety of fruits to cook. Anyone who truly knows breadfruit knows that there are numerous tastes and textures to be had. At one point as we walked, Diane pulled a ripe fruit off a tree. It was an Ulu afa from Tokelau, a dugdug/breadfruit hybrid—a little lumpy, full of seeds, with a deep yellow flesh, not milky and pale like most breadfruit. Most unusual, it could be eaten raw. We devoured it on the spot. It was sweet and creamy like a perfumed custard, and if anyone other than Diane had told me that it was breadfruit, I would have said, “Impossible.”

Most varieties are not as outlandish as that, though. We picked four to cook: Otea from Tahiti, Afara from Raiatea, Meion from Chuuk and Ulu fiti from Rotuma (that last rescued from the abandoned collection Diane had visited in Samoa). We made a feast. Diane boiled the Meion with salt, then mashed it with coconut milk, fried onions and garlic. The Ulu fiti was steamed, sliced and sautéed lightly to become the “chips” for the nachos. The Afara went into a casserole with sweet potato, ginger, cinnamon and fresh orange juice. The Otea’s preparation was the simplest: steamed and sliced. We cooked them all in the Hana kitchen of Jan Elliott, a good friend who happens to be an NTBG board member with a serious interest in breadfruit.

Then we ate. There were five of us: Diane, Jan, me, a spirited woman from Germany named Susanne and Frank James Oliveira, a Hana-born Hawaiian who’d grown up eating ‘ulu. We piled our plates high and then deconstructed what we were demolishing. The Otea was the densest, the Afara the sweetest, the Meion the smoothest, the Ulu fiti the most flavorful. “A foundational food,” went the comments around the table. “Solid.” “Nurturing.” “Prolific.” “Outrageously good.”

When we were done, we all leaned back, sated. Frank James had the last word. “Breadfruit,” he pronounced, “is like duct tape. You can do anything with it.”

Bligh’s ship was aptly named: Bounty is a word breadfruit evokes constantly. For our dinner we’d cooked just four fruits for five people, and we had more leftovers than we knew what to do with. That plentitude was a significant part of what drew Diane to breadfruit. As she traveled the Pacific working to document and conserve, always in the back of her mind was the idea of feeding people—part of the reason she’d gone to Rome’s IPGRI for funding.

But how to do it? Diane knew better than almost anyone alive how hard it is to propagate breadfruit. Even with all of her expertise and dedication, she’d lost hundreds of her accessions. She wasn’t alone in that: When Kiribati asked for trees in 1993, she sent them 200 root suckers from the garden—and they managed to grow twelve trees. The fact that there was a use for breadfruit was indisputable—80 percent of the world’s hungry live in the tropics, where breadfruit grows—but the question remained: How to get the trees to the people?

The answer appeared on the horizon in 2003 when Diane met Dr. Susan Murch, a scientist from the University of British Columbia, in Hawai‘i temporarily. Diane introduced Murch to breadfruit and the Canadian was captivated. No seeds? No problem: Murch returned to BC and began work to clone it.

She would take tiny buds that came from the branches of the trees, clean and sterilize them and then put them in a test tube with a concoction of sugar, vitamins, minerals and protein stabilizers. It was a complicated, challenging endeavor to find the exact medium that would spark life, and Murch’s graduate students collected hundreds of buds in the Hana garden, almost all of which died as the scientist experimented. But finally, in the clinical confines of a research lab far distant on the continent, Murch discovered just what it took to convince an island plant to burst forth in a new way: A bud grew, rooted and turned into a little tree. Each variety of breadfruit, Murch has since discovered, requires its own unique media to grow. But still, the quantum leap had been made. The “great things happening” that Diane alluded to in her e-mail? The tree that for millennia had been bred and carried so carefully throughout the Pacific was now ready to be taken throughout the entire tropical world.

The next question was obvious: Who would grow it en masse? The answer was Cultivaris, a globally minded horticulture company that produces millions of plants every year. Company partner Josh Schneider is ecstatic at breadfruit’s potential. “These plants really offer a huge opportunity to change the world,” he says. “Breadfruit has so much promise to empower people to feed themselves and their families. I honestly think it is one of the most exciting things that we have ever been involved in in our lives.”

Schneider, who is full of praise for Murch’s sleuthing and success, notes that clonal propagation, while sometimes incredibly difficult, is nonetheless basically “a high-tech way of taking cuttings.” Cultivaris has already grown several thousand breadfruit trees and is on track to grow several hundred thousand by the end of this year: Now that Murch has cracked the code, Cultivaris can get from a bud to a 10-inch-tall tree within three months. And since clonal propagation produces a plant free of disease and pathogens, a tree’s chance of survival, says Schneider, is “about 100 percent.”

“We have the ability now to make millions of trees and distribute them around the world with a low cost and a high rate of success,” he says. The company plans to work with govern-ments, agricultural departments, commercial companies, aid organizations—all comers—to get breadfruit into the world. The higher the produc-tion volume, the lower the price of a tree. Trees are now $5 to $8, but Schneider hopes that sufficient demand will lower that price to $3 to $4. And a good chunk of that money will return to the Pacific. Cultivaris is now growing three Samoan varities—Ulu fiti, Puou and Ma‘afala—and under agreements between the company, the NTBG and Samoa, Cultivaris will pay a fee for each tree it grows and sells, money that will be split fifty-fifty between the NTBG and Samoa.

Last September Cultivaris’ very first trees arrived in Hawai‘i, ten 6-inch-tall babies packed in tiny vials with sterile potting media. They were bound for a most unlikely place: the women’s prison on O‘ahu. Warden Mark Patterson is a big believer that growing your own food is a way to nourish both body and soul—so when volunteers with the Garden Club of Honolulu suggested the inmates grow breadfruit, he was, says Garden Club member Judi Moore, “stoked.” The prison was already home to a taro lo‘i, mango and banana trees and a hydroponic lettuce garden. Today it can add to that ten thriving Ma‘afala trees, each now 3 feet tall and about to go from 2-gallon pots into the earth. Wendy Akau is one of the women in the prison who cares for the trees.

“They’ve got so much mana [power] in them,” she says as she gently plucks tiny weeds out from around their trunks. “You can just tell by looking at them how happy they are. And when they grow, they give so much back.” She talks of eating breadfruit at home on the Big Island, of cooking it for her kids. “Being Hawaiian,” she says, “there’s a connection that’s indescribable.” Only one of the trees—the one in the back, in the corner—has a name, and she’s named it for herself: “Wendy Girl.” I ask why, and for a moment she looks a little shy, embarrassed almost, but that gives way to a dignified pride. “Because she’s strong,” she says, “and graceful and secure and elegant. I’m grateful to be a part of this experience. I would like to be here when these trees are put in the ground. I would like them to be planted near the river so there’s an endless supply of water for their roots.”

As I leave the prison, I remember a moment in the garden with Diane. The sun had been out, the leaves stirring in the trades, and everything—Diane, the trees, the birds, the air—was radiantly alive. Diane was talking of her dream of getting vast forests of breadfruit to Haiti.

“Haiti has such problems with deforestation, loss of tree cover, loss of watershed, with hunger,” she’d said, “and breadfruit could change that. In three to four years, the trees could be producing fruit. In fifty to 100 years, breadfruit could change so much.” In that moment I’d thought of Bligh’s mission to get breadfruit to the Caribbean, of how it had bound the tree to slavery and of how now, 200 hundred years later, Diane was on a mission to tie it to freedom: from famine, poverty and environmental destruction. There in the garden I’d asked her whether she felt she’d done the right thing with her life, and she’d smiled and said, “Most definitely.” HH