KALAHEO — Diane Ragone, director of the Breadfruit Institute, came to Kauai in 1979 to work in tropical horticulture after securing an undergraduate degree in the discipline from Virginia Tech.
More than 30 years later, the Virginia native is being recognized as the newest recipient of the Medal of Honor from the Garden Club of America, a distinction she shares with people she said are heroes and mentors in her own life.
She’s set to receive the award at the end of May at a black tie event in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and its purpose is to honor her work in establishing the world’s largest breadfruit collection at the National Tropical Botanical Garden.
“I was totally completely surprised to learn about the award and really, really touched and humbled by it,” Ragone said.
Ragone said the application process to nominate someone for the award is extensive and the fact that her colleagues went to so much work for her to receive the award was mind-blowing.
“That was a lot of effort on their part and I’m appreciative they thought so much of me, and my work,” she said.
Ragone built most of the 120-variety collection at NTBG, which is mostly planted on Maui, as a graduate student at the University of Hawaii. She said she did some reading in the library about breadfruit when she was considering her Ph.D. and that sparked the passion.
“It was really that aha moment of reading how important breadfruit was in the Pacific, how widely used it was, and how at risk it was,” Ragone said. “It was writing that term paper and I decided what I wanted to do was focus on the conservation of breadfruit diversity.”
She knew that NTBG had a small collection of breadfruit varieties, established in the 1970s, so she partnered with them and secured grants through the garden to support her field work. In return, she built their collection.
“That’s how the collection was built — through my work at the University of Hawaii as a graduate student,” Ragone said. “And I learned by doing. For instance, I spent a year in western Samoa because they had a big regional breadfruit collection.”
Everywhere she went, Ragone worked with departments of agriculture to get her specimens securely shipped to the University of Hawaii greenhouses, where they were grown for research and then shipped by Young Brothers to Hana, Maui for planting.
Ragone said throughout her travels, she established connections with people that remain today. In fact, she said that’s one of the highlights of her breadfruit tenure — the people.
“There are people that I met doing field work in 1985 that I still keep in touch with this many years later,” she said.
Along with the people, the collection itself has been a major highlight in Ragone’s life and she’s excited to see it take its next steps.
“Now we’re in the final assessment of the collection using different research and DNA data (and) DNA fingerprinting,” Ragone said.
Though the collection is established and Ragone is rolling up her sleeves for research, she said the Breadfruit Institute is also focusing on outreach and education for the multiple uses of breadfruit.
“It’s absolutely versatile and it’s a tree,” Ragone said. “You can use it in soups, salads, deserts … there’s really no end to the ways to use it, we just have to get the ideas and recipes out there.”