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.”