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Plant of the Week: Kiwi

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not promote, support or recommend plants featured in "Plant of the Week." Please consult your local Extension office for plants suitable for your region.

Plant of the Week

Latin: Actinidia deliciosa

Picture of a Kiwi plant with fruit
Kiwi fruit can be grown in sheltered areas of the garden in milder parts of the country.

I've never been a picky eater. But apparently not everyone feels that way because new foods have a notoriously slow acceptance rate amongst the public. Kiwi fruit, long a favorite in China, has only become popular in American markets in the past 50 years.

Kiwi (Actinidia deliciosa) is a fast-growing deciduous vine capable of sending its twining vines 30 feet or more down a trellis or up a tree. It has rounded, 5-inch, densely pubescent leaves with reddish hairs on the leaf veins and petiole.

Creamy white flowers are produced in mid-spring on year-old wood. Kiwi vines are dioecious with plants being either male or female. The fuzzy, goose egg-sized kiwi fruit we see in grocery stores is produced on a female selection made in New Zealand in 1924 called Hayward.

It's winter hardy to about 10 degrees to 15 degrees, but the blooms and new foliage is often damaged by late season freezes. The male clone used to pollinate Hayward is less winter hardy, so fruit production is problematic in areas north of zone 8.

Kiwi has long been cultivated along the Yangtze River in China where it's called "Yang-tao." Herbarium specimens were collected in the middle of the 18th and 19th century, but living plants weren't introduced to the West until 1900 when E.H. "China" Wilson (1876 – 1930) sent seeds back to London to his employer at the Veitch Nursery.

Wilson, a plant explorer who introduced hundreds of Chinese plants into cultivation, was enchanted with the vine and thought of it as a fruit crop more than as an ornamental. In 1904, he sent seeds of the vine to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Plant Introduction Station. They, in turn, forwarded the seeds to their experimental farm in Chico, Calif.

In that same year, Isabel Fraser, the headmistress of a girl's college in New Zealand, visited her sister's mission in the Yangtze Valley in Ichang where she collected samples of the fruit from the garden. The vines grown from these first fruit were grown as a novelty in down-under gardens where they were called either Ichang gooseberries or, more commonly, Chinese gooseberries. Kiwi is not related to the gooseberry but belongs to its own plant family.

The planting in California attracted little interest amongst growers, but in New Zealand farmers saw potential. Small commercial plantings were made in the 1930s; the first export of fruit to England happened in 1952 and California in 1959.

Today, Italy, New Zealand and Chile are the three leading export producers. Kiwi is an excellent fruit for export because, when picked green, it remains edible for two months. If held in refrigeration, it remains fresh for up to six months.

The shipment of the first 100 cases of fruit to California resulted in a name change. Marketers thought it needed a better name so they shipped the first cases under the fanciful name of "mellonetes." The San Francisco importer rejected that name and the more familiar Chinese gooseberry name because import duties were imposed on both melons and berries. The New Zealanders then suggested kiwifruit after the flightless national bird of their nation. The name stuck.

Kiwi is hardy throughout zones 8 and 9 but can be grown further north if planted in sheltered situations. In Clarksville, (zone 7b) the female clone survived successfully on open trellises amongst grapevines but the male clone consistently winter-killed. In colder areas it is best trained to the south or west side of a building or stone wall.

Plants grow best in full sun in a well-drained, fertile soil. Because it is such a vigorous grower it should be pruned severely each winter much like is done with grapes.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - November 9, 2007


The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.