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.