By Craig Hepworth.
Kiwi berry! With its incredible intensity of flavor and sweetness, this little-known relative of the common kiwi sold in grocery stores is one of my all-time favorite fruits.
Kiwi berries are smaller than their more famous cousins, but they make up for that small size with what many believe is a bigger and better flavor. Imagine you took all the flavor from a couple of those fuzzy supermarket kiwis, and you concentrated that kiwi taste and sweetness into one little grape-sized fruit. Then imagine you also threw in a few elements of blackberry, blueberry, and raspberry, for an explosion of fruity taste.
And if their remarkable taste weren’t enough, kiwi berries have a bonus feature: they have no fuzz at all, hence there’s no need to peel them. You eat the whole fruit, skin and all, just like you’d eat a grape. Kiwi berries are a food people don’t have to learn to like—when I give people their first samples of kiwi berries to taste, virtually everyone instantly loves them.
People often assume a fruit so delicious and exotic-tasting must be from Hawaii or Brazil or some other tropical region, but here’s something that comes as a surprise to many: kiwi berries are not from the tropics. Actually, they are native to eastern Asia, in regions with long, snowy winters. The plants can handle winter temperatures down to a bone-crunching minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit, so another name you’ll often see for this fruit is “hardy kiwi.”
In North America, kiwi berries grow well throughout much of the continental US, including the central tier of states, the Northeast, and the Pacific Northwest, and even some of southern Canada. I used to live in Western Massachusetts, where winter temperatures sometimes dipped to minus 20 degrees, and we had kiwi berry vines that grew prolifically and produced abundant crops of fruit. If you live in a cold-winter area and you look with envy on the fruits of warm regions, here’s your chance to grow a fruit so fantastically delicious it makes people in the tropics envious.
The kiwi berry plant is a woody vine, not a tree. In commercial plantings, farmers grow these vines on trellises much like a grape vineyard, pruning the plants regularly for optimal production. People have reported getting over 100 pounds of kiwi berries from each vine per year. If you’re a farmer in a cold-winter climate and you grow food to sell at a farmers’ market or through a CSA, I highly recommend you look into planting kiwi berries. They’ll earn you a good measure of loyalty with your customers.
Home gardeners can set up the same sort of vineyard-style trellis system, training and pruning kiwi berry vines for maximum fruit production. Or if you have a chain-link fence that you want to cover with a food-producing vine, you can plant a few kiwi berry vines along it. The fence will transform into a wall of green foliage all summer and produce a bountiful harvest of home-grown fruits every fall.
Before you decide to plant kiwi berry, be aware that this is an extremely vigorous, fast-growing plant. The woody vines become quite heavy after a few years and can climb trees and smother them. Make sure to plant this species on a very solidly built fence or trellis, where there aren’t any nearby trees the vines could climb. Since kiwi berry plants rarely if ever produce spontaneous seedlings in North America, it’s unlikely to become invasive, spreading into native ecosystems. But the vines certainly are aggressive, and once planted, without regular trimming, they can sprawl all over everything around them.
If you’re lucky, you might find kiwi berry plants at a local nursery, but if not, just look online; a number of nurseries ship cutting-propagated plants of good varieties. The botanical name of the most widely available species of kiwi berry is Actinidia arguta, while the fuzzy kiwi sold in grocery stores is Actinidia deliciosa (which I find curious because to me it’s less “deliciosa” than kiwi berry, and it’s also less cold-hardy). One quirk of kiwi berries is that they come as separate male and female plants, and you’ll need both for fruit production. One male vine can pollinate about six nearby female vines. Some particularly good female varieties of kiwi berry are “Dumbarton Oaks,” “Geneva,” “Ananasnaya,” and “Arbor-eat-um.” A less-vigorous, self-pollinating variety is “Issai.”
What if you just want to buy kiwi berry fruits to eat or make cocktails with perhaps? They’re still hard to find, but it’s worth some legwork to track them down. The peak season is September and October, when the fruits sometimes show up at farmers’ markets and Asian grocery stores, and they’ve even been spotted at some of the major chains of big box stores in recent years. Beware of ancient, shriveled-looking fruits, which I’ve seen occasionally in stores—the skin on fresh kiwi berries should be completely smooth. And be sure to ask the growers at your local farmers’ market if they’re growing kiwi berries. If they’re not familiar with the fruit, you can refer them to this article for an introduction.
It’s puzzling why kiwi berry is so obscure. I first found out about them in the early 90s, and today, almost 30 years later, it’s still a very little-known fruit. I don’t understand why—these should be in every grocery store and farmers’ market in autumn. Kiwi berry are truly one of the best treats the fruit world has to offer.