SPRING VALLEY — Peggy Winter has an 84-year-old mother to look after, five grown children--one of them a daughter with brain damage--to care for and is four years a widow without much money.
So how come her hillside property here is sprouting with Ecuadorean cherry trees, carambolas from Java, raisin trees from China (throw away the fruit, eat the stems) and scrub palms from New Zealand? Atamoyas from who knows where. Pomegranates, coffee trees from South America, jaboticabas from Brazil, jujubes from China and fruiting bananas, each growing very different fruit.
And white sapote and black sapote, pineapple guava (eat its white petals), two hickory trees (it's too warm for them to nut here), allspice from Hawaii and guavas from Thailand and Costa Rica.
The answer is that these are truly the fruits of Peggy Winter's determination to lead a full life, do well and see the world at the same time without waiting to get rich.
Winter, 60, has done anything to keep her family's body and soul together. From writing 150 short books she calls "sensual Gothics" to working in a travel agency.
"People with five kids don't travel," she says. "All my life I have wanted to travel. This all started when I volunteered to edit the newsletter for the Rare Fruit Club. When I started working in a travel agency, I realized that, with every 15 people you get on a plane, the 16th seat is free. That set me free."
But it's what she did with that freedom that has set her apart. Winter has become something of a Johnny Appleseed, doing her little bit to spread good plants and good nutrition around the world.
"Our first trip was to Guatemala, about '76. It was so wonderful, I had found something new in myself. Next year, we went to South America, each subsequent trip making contact with horticulturalists to show us rare fruit trees. We did Australia and New Zealand, but for the last four years it has been Southeast Asia because so many tropical fruits come from there."
Each time she organizes a trip, Winter writes and tries to put together forays into interiors to see the fruit trees in their natural environment.
"But I also take seeds with me. This year, I had good contacts with a gentleman called Mr. Voon Boon Hoe in Kuching in Sarawak. He's director of research and development in the Department of Agriculture there. He asked for some 'low-chill' apples that do well here in San Diego. He had so few people bringing him in things from the outside that he didn't even have any disease on his citrus. That must be a record!
"So I took him some tropic beauty apples, and mission figs. They've had great success with the Israeli Anna apples. The Indonesians have about 50,000 acres growing now in East Java. And now the passion-fruit seeds we took last year to Sabah--we left them at the test station in Tenom, Sabah--have done wonderfully. They're already distributing the seeds from that crop to the farmers.
"But we have taken apples, peach, pear trees over, just to help them experiment in ways to better the diet, give income to farmers. And of course we bring back the most marvelous things.
"We went upriver in Borneo this last time and spent time in long-house villages, exchanging T-shirts for fruit. I felt terrible taking kind of cheap-thrill things from the West, but they were as pleased (with the T-shirts) as we were to find out what they ate and how they grew their fruit.
"We have started bringing back all sorts of fruiting bananas. So much more interesting than the kind we have been eating here. There are dozens of different kinds, with different tastes and textures. We're growing them here now. "
But, more than that, Winter's friendships have grown throughout Latin America and Southeast Asia. Her interest in rare fruit has been a key to trips into the deepest interiors of faraway places, and contact with people of the forest and land most travelers never get to meet. She needs a computer now, just to keep up with the correspondence with the 200-odd people writing to her and exchanging ideas.
Monetarily, she's no richer than before, but she's a lot busier.
"The irony is, I never have time to do anything with my own garden anymore. Look at it! It's a mess! It's more like an experimental station."
One surprise that her bringing back plants has shown is that some plants are in the wrong country.
"It's a fact. Some plants just can't wait to get away from their native land. Look at the scrub palm from New Zealand. It looks absolutely miserable there. Never grows more than a few feet. I've brought it back here and see--it grows to a magnificent palm here. Fifteen feet! Some plants, like people, are just born in the wrong place."
Winter's place is obviously on the move. Exchanging plants, Johnny Appleseeding it in a small way, getting on with it while intergovernmental agencies spend years perfecting macro-schemes.
"I'm no expert," she says, "but, if I have an accomplishment, it is introducing knowledgeable people to knowledgeable people."
And where to next?
"Madagascar. Numbers are a problem right now; I need the 15 for my free seat. But I'm not worried. I never did have a trip that didn't happen."