Actinidia deliciosa (kiwi fruit)
Although native to China, it was commercialisation of this climber in New Zealand (and clever marketing under the name kiwi fruit) that made it the popular and widespread fruit it is today.
About this species
This attractive climber is grown in temperate gardens for its large heart-shaped leaves and creamy-white, scented flowers, but throughout much of the world it is better known as a commercial fruit.
The species was considered to be a variety of Actinidia latifolia, namely A. latifolia var. deliciosa when first described in 1940 by the French botanist Auguste Jean Baptiste Chevalier (1873–1956). It achieved full species status in 1984 when Liang and Ferguson published the name Actinidia deliciosa. It is sometimes referred to as a variety of A. chinensis, a related species in which the fruits lose their hairs as they mature. Another wild relative, A. kolomikta, also has edible fruits.
Geography & Distribution
Native to China, mainly in the southern and central parts, in mountain forests at 800–1400 m. Actinidia deliciosa is widely cultivated in many countries, including New Zealand, Brazil, Chile and Italy. The most common cultivar in commercial production is ‘Hayward’.
Overview: A dioecious (individual plants are either male or female), vigorous woody vine with large, leathery heart-shaped green leaves up to 25 cm across, which turn a reddish colour in autumn.
Flowers: Creamy-white to yellow, slightly scented and up to around 5 cm across. They are produced in the leaf axils in May–June and pollinated by bees. Female plants bear fruit if pollinated. Self-fertile cultivars have been bred.
Fruits: The well-known fruit is a brown-skinned, oval berry, up to 8 cm long, covered with fine hairs. The edible flesh is bright green with numerous tiny black seeds.
Illustration from Curtis's Botanical Magazine
Hand-coloured lithograph of Actinidia deliciosa (as A. chinensis) by Matilda Smith, from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (1914).
Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (Editor: Martyn Rix) provides an international forum of particular interest to botanists and horticulturists, plant ecologists and those with a special interest in botanical illustration.
Now well over two hundred years old, the Magazine is the longest running botanical periodical featuring colour illustrations of plants. Each four-part volume contains 24 plant portraits reproduced from watercolour originals by leading international botanical artists. Detailed but accessible articles combine horticultural and botanical information, history, conservation and economic uses of the plants described.
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The Chinese gooseberry becomes a kiwi
Cross section of a kiwi fruit (Image: Wolfgang Stuppy)
A New Zealand teacher, Mary Isabel Fraser, is credited with introducing Actinidia deliciosa from China to her homeland in 1904 after returning from a visit to a Chinese mission in Yichang on the Yangtze River. She arrived back in New Zealand with seeds of what was then called Chinese, or Ichang, gooseberry, and from these a local nurseryman produced plants that first fruited in 1910.
However, large scale commercial fruit production for the international market did not begin until the 1970s when the fruits of improved varieties were successfully marketed using the name kiwi fruit. The crop is now grown not only in New Zealand but also in Brazil, Chile, Australia, Italy (the world’s top producer) and elsewhere. In New Zealand it has escaped from cultivation and is considered to be potentially invasive in forests.
In China, the fruit is called 'yangtao', meaning 'strawberry peach', and has been cultivated for at least 300 years (there are over 400 varieties in China alone). Wild fruits are also harvested. Today, Italy is the world’s top producer of kiwi fruit, followed by New Zealand and Chile. The fruit is a good source of vitamin C, vitamin E and a range of B vitamins as well as dietary fibre. Actinidin, an enzyme present in the fruit, can be used as a meat tenderizer.
Research indicates that kiwi fruit could be of potential benefit in preventing and halting some processes that lead to cardiovascular disease.
Actinidia deliciosa makes an attractive ornamental climber.
This species at Kew
Fruits and seeds, catalogued under the name Actinidia chinensis, are held in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection, where they are available to researchers by appointment.
Flora of China (efloras) Actinidia deliciosa (listed as Actinidia chinensis var. deliciosa)
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