Produce Provenance

Kiwifruit’s Journey from Primate Favorite to Worldwide Delight

by John Paap

What looks like a bird and is loved by a monkey?

It’s a saying we’ve all heard before, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” The saying is as true for books as it is for fresh produce (have you seen the cover of The Great Gatsby?) There are endless produce items that on the outside look downright strange or scary, but on the inside their beauty and flavors are stunning. Perhaps one fruit that illustrates this the best is the mihoutao. Does that name not ring a bell? Perhaps you know it better as the Chinese gooseberry? Still nothing? OK, how about the kiwifruit? Great. Now that we’re on the same page, I’m sure you’re wondering how the kiwifruit has so many names. To get to the answer of that we must journey back to the origins of this deliciously odd-looking fruit.

The kiwifruit is a wild, climbing plant that is native to China. The earliest accounts of this fruit, although vague and sometimes unclear, appear in early Chinese texts dated more than 2000 years ago. The first definitive descriptions of the kiwifruit are dated from the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) where one poem suggests that cultivation may have started around this time. However, it is almost certain that cultivation was not extensive. 

Most writers consistently refer to the kiwifruit as being a wild plant that was most common in the remote mountains. In fact, one of its original names, mihoutao, is inspired by a primate who lived in these temperate mountains that loved the fruit: the macaques. Mihoutao in Chinese translates to ‘macaque fruit.’ In the late 16th century, Li Shizhen, author of one of the most comprehensive of all Chinese pharmacopeias Bencao Gangmu, wrote of the mihoutao, “Its shape is that of a pear, its color that of a peach, and monkeys like to eat it, hence its name.” While macaques may have been the primary consumer, it appears Chinese peasants were also enjoying the fruit when they could collect them from the wild.

By the mid-18th century, the mihoutao came across the eyes of a French Jesuit and amateur botanist Pierre Nicolas Le Chéron d’Incarville. Originally tasked with converting the Emperor of China, d’Incarville spent 17 years at the Imperial Court in Beijing (1740-1757). During his time in China, he collected specimens of native Chinese plants, including the kiwifruit, which he sent back to France. Unfortunately for d’Incarville, while he has been credited as the first collector of the plant, the specimen he sent remained ignored in France. 

More than a hundred years later, in 1882, Irishman Augustine Henry was sent to Yichang by the Imperial Customs Service to investigate plants used in Chinese medicine. During his search, Henry collected some 8,000 specimens including the kiwifruit. Henry’s enthusiasm for the kiwifruit, inspired Sir William Thiselston-Dyer, then director of the Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew), to assign a young Ernest Henry Wilson to collect seeds and plants in China.

In 1899 Wilson met with Henry to learn where he may find the wild plants he was in search of. With Henry’s instructions, Wilson was successful in finding many of the plants, including the kiwifruit, and returned seeds back to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Britain. Unfortunately, the plant born from the kiwifruit seed sent by Wilson ended up being staminate (male). Without pistillate (female) plants, horticulturalists were not able to produce a fruit-bearing plant. 

It wasn’t until 1911 that a female form of the vine, once again sent by Wilson, was received by the nurseries in Britain. However, by that point, horticulturalists in Europe were no longer interested in the fruit and the plant remained only an ornamental curiosity. A similar event unfolded in the United States when they received their first kiwifruit seeds, also sourced through Wilson, in 1900. The United States would see their first female kiwifruit plants in 1913 when they purchased cuttings from Britain’s successfully fruiting female plant.

While British and American plant collectors were unsuccessful in their attempts to introduce the kiwifruit, fate seemed to have favored a New Zealand sheep farmer with an interest in novel plants. In 1878, the Church of Scotland opened a mission in Yiachang, China. Years later in 1897, three young female missionaries arrived from New Zealand including Katie Fraser. One of Katie’s sisters, Isabel, was a teacher and principal at Wanganui Girls’ College and decided to join her sister in China in 1903. When Isabel returned to New Zealand in 1904, she brought with her some kiwifruit seeds which she gave to Wanganui nurseryman Thomas Allison who in turn passed them on to his sheep farmer and plant enthusiast brother, Alexander Allison. By 1910, the seeds planted by Alexander had produced New Zealand’s first fruit-bearing kiwifruit plant. But how did Isabel get the kiwifruit seeds in the first place? It seems once again that Wilson was the source. Wilson had visited the Church of Scotland mission in 1900 and introduced the people there to the fruit he named the Ichang gooseberry. Katie Fraser would’ve seen this fruit and likely shared it with her sister. Once more, we can credit Wilson with the introduction of kiwifruit to yet another nation.

While kiwifruit was being enjoyed by New Zealanders, it wasn’t until World War II that the fruit’s popularity went global. British and American service members stationed in New Zealand encountered the strange fruit and enjoyed it so much that they began telling friends and family back home about it. 

As New Zealand exporters began to send kiwifruit to America in the late 1950s, they met resistance from American importers who complained about the name used for the fruit: Chinese gooseberry. It was the height of the Cold War and so anything associated with a communist nation was a marketing nightmare. In June 1959, New Zealand exporter Turners and Growers suggested the name kiwifruit after the country’s national bird, the Kiwi, which like the fruit had a furry brown appearance. The name was accepted and by the 1970s the new name became recognized across the industry and remains so today.

With a name inspired from a primate to a flightless bird, the kiwifruit has certainly had its share of animal-inspired names throughout its history.  Today, kiwifruit is grown around the world from New Zealand to Chile, Italy and beyond. It is a fruit that continues to attract more consumers who are willing to look past its brown, furry cover to see the bright, vibrant beauty that lies beneath. The story of the kiwifruit is far from over. 

  • John Paap is the Sustainability and Brand Marketing Manager at Jac. Vandenberg, Inc. and co-host of the “History of Fresh Produce” series on The Produce Industry Podcast.