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A Brief History of Kiwifruit

By Philip McIntosh | Last updated: May 28, 2021
Key Takeaways

Surprisingly, kiwifruit didn’t originate in New Zealand. They also weren’t originally called kiwifruit.

Kiwis are fuzzy little things. And no, we are not talking about the small flightless birds or the folks who hail from New Zealand. Of course, we’re talking about the kiwifruit, which, as one might guess, does have a connection to the island nation southeast of Australia. Known simply as the kiwi in many places, the soft oval fruit arises on the branches of Actinidia deliciosa and a few close relatives in the Actinidiaceae, a family of 350-plus species. Actinidia deliciosa grows as a small tree, shrub, or vine.

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Kiwifruits are about the size and shape of a chicken egg, but a little more symmetrical, with short brown hairs on the outer surface. When ripe, the inside is fleshy and juicy, usually green, sometimes yellow, with many small black seeds arranged around a lighter colored core. The flavor is often described as reminiscent of that of a strawberry or gooseberry.

The kiwifruit originated in China, where it was first collected from the wild at first with cultivation only happening later. Clear references to its existence date back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) and limited cultivation probably began sometime around then, although less obvious references possibly date back to 2,000 years ago. Specimens of the plant were collected by European botanists and the first technical description of the plant, then called Actinidia chinensis, was made in 1847. In those days there was quite a bit of competition between botanical societies and horticulturists for introducing new commercially viable plants.

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Around the turn of the century E. H. Wilson was sent to China to collect specimens on behalf of the London firm James Vietch and Sons. After a period of experimentation and development, the kiwifruit appeared in the company’s 1904 catalogue, where it was called the Chinese Gooseberry because of its taste and place of origin. The climate in most parts of Europe is not particularly well suited to cultivation of kiwifruit. The fact that kiwifruit plants are dioecious, with male and female flowers arising on separate plants, didn’t help. The first specimens successfully grown produced male flowers only, so no fruit was produced. It was only some years later that female plants were generated, but by that time, interest in this novel arrival from the East had faded.

The kiwifruit took a completely different path in 1904 when it was brought to New Zealand from China. In 1906, seeds were successfully germinated and the resulting vines produced their first fruit in 1910. Production in New Zealand gradually expanded and there was enough fruit grown to allow export to the United States in the 1950s.

The name Chinese Gooseberry was not a winner in the U.S. from a marketing perspective (communism and all), so after rejecting one or two other possible monikers, the name kiwifruit was adopted in 1959. New Zealand’s kiwifruit industry began in a town called Te Puke, which claims to be the “Kiwifruit Capital of the World.” It may be the kiwifruit capital of New Zealand, but in recent years, China and Italy have produced more fruit than New Zealand with Iran and Chile coming in fourth and fifth.

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Despite its sweetness, kiwifruits are comparatively low in calories, high in fiber, and are a good source of potassium, vitamins A, C and E, and folate. To get the full benefits you have to eat the skin too.

Kiwifruit are an ingredient in facial masks as an exfoliant and skin nourishing and anti-aging treatments. Given the list of desirable vitamins, minerals, and other phytochemicals in a kiwifruit , it probably feels pretty good, and certainly can’t hurt.

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Article Sources

Maximum Yield uses high-quality sources to support the facts within our content including peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, professional organizations, and governmental organizations.

  • A. R. Ferguson. H. Wilson, Yichang, and the Kiwifruit. Arnoldia, (1983).
  • Hugh Campbell, Julia Haggerty. 'Kiwifruit - The hairy berry', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. (24 Nov 2008).
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Written by Philip McIntosh | Science & Technology Writer, Teacher

Profile Picture of Philip McIntosh
Philip McIntosh is a science and technology writer with a bachelor’s degree in botany and chemistry and a master’s degree in biological science. During his graduate research, he used hydroponic techniques to grow axenic plants. He lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he teaches mathematics.

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