Exploring the Roots of NTBG’s Breadfruit Institute

By Dr. Diane Ragone, Director, Breadfruit Institute

Have you ever wondered why breadfruit is the signature plant of the National Tropical Botanical Garden and serves as its logo? In 1967, three years after the Garden was established by a Congressional charter, a distinguished group of botanists, horticulturists, and botanical garden directors were appointed to the Garden’s Science Advisory Committee (SAC). Their assignment: provide guidance and advice to [1]PTBG’s Board of Trustees and Executive Director on what was needed to build a world-class garden, beginning with the selection and purpose of its living collections.

In 1974 the advisory committee recommended breadfruit as an important Pacific Islands plant with nutritional and ethnobotanical significance worthy of study and evaluation in the field and in cultivation. That same year, the Garden’s iconic breadfruit logo, featuring the attractive leaves and patterned fruit in black and white, was adopted. A watercolor painting by renowned botanical illustrator, Mary Grierson, provided the color scheme for the logo since the early 1990s.

A definitive collection of breadfruit and breadnut

PTBG’s Kahanu Garden, established in Hana, Maui in 1972, ­already had numerous mature Hawaiian breadfruit cultivars and was identified as a good location to establish a breadfruit collection. In 1976, then Garden Director Dr. William Theobald (1975-1993), called for the creation of “a definitive collection of breadfruit and breadnut[2].” Soon after, Pacific Island expeditions to collect breadfruit cultivars (varieties) commenced, with Allerton Garden co-founder John Gregg Allerton and staff botanists traveling to the remote island nation of Kiribati.


Over the next few years, Steve Perlman, then the Garden’s nursery manager, brought back numerous cultivars from the Society Islands. Additionally, Dr. Arthur Whistler, then a staff botanist, sent several cultivars from Samoa, as did agriculture departments in Pohnpei (Federated States of Micronesia) and the Seychelles Islands.

Three Tahitian and Seychelloise cultivars were the very first breadfruit trees planted in the Lawai Valley on Kauai in 1981, and can still be seen along the Lawai Stream in the McBryde Garden. Two different Tahitian varieties are still flourishing at Limahuli Garden. Thirty-one cultivars were planted at Kahanu Garden between 1978-1981 and form the nucleus of NTBG’s extraordinary breadfruit germplasm repository.

I became interested in breadfruit in 1983 as a graduate student in the Horticulture Department at the University of Hawaii. While conducting a literature review for a term paper on breadfruit, I came across The Bulletin of the Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden, and learned about the Garden’s collection. That chance discovery laid the groundwork for my three-decade involvement with the Garden and a career collecting and studying breadfruit diversity.

Support from PTBG and regional, national, and international organizations allowed me to conduct extensive fieldwork throughout Oceania in 1985 and 1987 during which time I documented more than 500 accessions with detailed information about each tree, as well as photographs and/or herbarium specimens, and propagating material in the form of root cuttings or seeds that was collected and sent to University of Hawaii greenhouses on Oahu.

A total of 185 trees (128 accessions) in pots were loaded into open-air shipping containers and shipped by interisland barge to Maui where they were planted at Kahanu Garden between 1989-1991.

I was excited to join the staff of NTBG in August 1989 as Director of the new Hawaii Plant Conservation Center (HPCC) on Kauai. In those days I checked on the trees in Hana once or twice a year and worked with the gardening staff to coordinate care and maintenance. The HPCC was integrated into the Garden’s Science Department in 1994 and as a staff scientist my attention returned to breadfruit.

Dr. Diane Ragone, Director, Breadfruit Institute
Dr. Diane Ragone

Many of the trees planted in 1989-1991 were beginning to fruit and the time was right to begin systematically evaluating and documenting the entire collection which is, first and foremost, a conservation collection, intended to preserve breadfruit diversity. It is the largest breadfruit germplasm repository in the world, conserving three species of breadfruit and 150 cultivars from 34 Pacific islands, including some cultivars that are now rare, or extinct, in their home islands.

The collection also provides unique opportunities for researchers to better understand this underutilized crop. The SAC’s blueprint for how living collections advance scientific research helped guide my efforts. The first study began in January 1996, and was aimed at answering the question “Is it possible to have year-round production of breadfruit?” After five years of data collection I selected a core group of 20 “elite” cultivars to intensively study, including propagation research, so we could share these cultivars with other countries.

To promote the conservation, study, and use of breadfruit for food and reforestation

The idea for the Breadfruit Institute resulted from a discussion between two members of NTBG’s Board of Trustees after visiting the breadfruit collection in 2002. The institute was envisioned as a new department at NTBG, capitalizing upon the breadfruit collection and my expertise and professional network. It would be more than a research program. The first step was to claim the URL www.breadfruit.org and adopt the mission statement: To promote the conservation, study, and use of breadfruit for food and reforestation. I was appointed as director when the institute was formally established in October 2003.

Soon we began extensive photographic documentation of each species and cultivar through the services of Jim Wiseman, a photographer and videographer, and expanded the scope of research to include nutritional composition, fruit characteristics, systematics, as well as genetic and morphological diversity. This research has been carried out by institute staff and in collaboration with scientists and graduate students at the University of British Columbia (UBC) at Okanagan, the University of Hawaii, Chicago Botanic Garden, and others.

In vitro (micropropagation or tissue culture) was a major research program directed by Dr. Susan Murch of UBC Okanagan. This collaborative project was aimed at developing methods to propagate breadfruit with the goal of duplicating and conserving germplasm and distributing elite cultivars. Despite numerous logistical and biological challenges, her team was successful in propagating several cultivars, the first being Maafala, a compact tree with a delicious and highly nutritious fruit.

We also partnered with a private horticultural company, Cultivaris LLC, NA, working under the name Global Breadfruit, to develop commercial micropropagation of breadfruit, including disease indexing and methods to wean or acclimatize plants from laboratory conditions to greenhouse settings. Shipped as small rooted plugs in soil-free media, these plants are more robust, have a much higher success rate than plants produced using traditional vegetative methods, and are ready for field planting in 12-20 weeks.

Global Hunger Initiative

This partnership made it possible to launch a Global Hunger Initiative in 2009 to respond to critical global food security issues by expanding plantings of good quality breadfruit cultivars in tropical regions. In less than 15 years since its foundation, the Institute has proven that breadfruit is a viable sustainable resource for regenerative agriculture, agroforestry, reforestation, and economic development.

To date, more than 100,000 trees have been shipped to 44 countries around the globe. In Hawaii, we have distributed more than 10,000 trees statewide through our Plant a Tree of Life – Grow Ulu project. Homeowners, community groups, non-governmental organizations engaged in food and nutrition and community development, farmers, and food entrepreneurs worldwide are embracing breadfruit as a versatile, nutritious crop with human and environmental benefits.

Agroforestry at the Breadfruit Institute

breadfruit agroforestry

Agroforestry is the planned integration of perennial woody plants — trees and shrubs — with annual crops and animals. It is a biodiverse dynamic system both spatially and temporally. Breadfruit has been an important component of traditional agroforestry systems throughout the Pacific Islands, interplanted with numerous crops and useful species. The Breadfruit Research Orchard in the McBryde Garden is an ideal location for our forthcoming Breadfruit Agroforestry Demonstration. When completed, this demonstration will serve as a living laboratory for producers to better understand how to plant breadfruit agroforests and for the general public to learn the importance of breadfruit for people and nature, culturally and commercially. This exciting project will show the benefits of growing breadfruit, not as a monoculture, but as part of a diverse mix of plant species to maximize production and yields while also rebuilding soil health and fertility. The demonstration, to be installed in 2017-2018, will include four themes: Contemporary tropical agroforestry, Heritage Pacific agroforestry, Shade-grown agroforestry, and Regeneration agroforestry, each encompassing about one-half acre.

[1] The Garden was established in 1964 as the Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden (PTBG). When The Kampong (in Florida) became part of the organization, the name was changed to National Tropical Botanical Garden.

[2] Both breadfruit and breadnut are in the genus Artocarpus, part of the fig family (Moraceae).

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