There’s nothing peewee about the kiwi

Fuzzy kiwi fruits burst on the American scene in the trend-hungry 1980s, but smooth-skinned hardy kiwis were there all along, hiding for much of the century beneath the leaves of Actinidia, an ornamental vine. Those became a hot item at about the same time, not as a commercial fruit crop but as a feature in edible landscaping.

Most people know the kiwi as a flightless New Zealand bird. Its circuitous connection with the eponymous fruit begins with tins of Kiwi brand shoe polish, named by its Aussie manufacturer to honor his New Zealander wife. Shipped in great quantities to the British military during both world wars, it inspired the nickname for New Zealander troops and subsequently their countrymen. The fruit, unlike the bird, is native not to New Zealand but to the humid mountains of Asia. But New Zealanders began growing it in the 1930s under the name Chinese Gooseberry. The name kiwi was chosen for its American debut, I suspect, because Americans had no idea what a gooseberry tastes like, and still don’t.

Actinidia deliciousa, the fuzzy form, is a subtropical vine that has no place in a Maine garden. The smooth-skinned Actinidia arguta and the even hardier Actinidia kolomikta are more reliable choices. So far no cute names for these have stuck, though Pee Wee Kiwi was once suggested, and a few trade names like Baby Kiwi and Kiwi Berries. Plants grown as ornamentals have been called Bower Vine, and A. kolomikta is sometimes sold as Arctic Beauty.

There is nothing peewee about the way they grow. They twine into the tops of their native forests, their tops exposed to sunlight above, their seedlings protected from chill winds and frost below. Perhaps this is why kolomiktas I once planted on the north side of a stockade fence did so well. I attached three strong wires horizontally near the bottom, top and middle and poked the vines behind them as they grew. After a few years they covered the fence handsomely, then climbed into the crab apples and hawthorns above them. Though some gardeners deliberately grow actinidias in trees, I snipped the wayward ones with loppers, then pulled them down.

I put up with this chore because the plants were so beautiful. In early summer their leaves appeared splashed with white and pink paint, far showier than the modest white flowers. In fall they festooned the fence with gold. Whether because of their age or my casual pruning, the vines bore fruit after about five or six years. The size of large grapes, they were less tart than their hairy cousins and needed no peeling. Good in salads and salsas they can also be baked in pies or pureed and used as marinades for meat. They even contain a meat tenderizing enzyme.

All kiwis are easy to grow, requiring only consistent moisture and good drainage. Those who grow them as a serious food crop use wires strung from crossbars mounted on stout posts, pruning and training them like grapes. (Lee Reich’s Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden gives good instructions.) For vines grown as ornamentals, you can opt for the default pruning method: “Hack it back if it gets too big.” The larger-leaved A arguta is beautiful clothing the sunny side of a building or covering an arbor.

Avoid chemical fertilizers that can burn the shallow root system. A top dressing of well-rotted manure or cottonseed meal during winter dormancy and during fruiting can be beneficial. Young plants must sometimes be protected from cats with wire mesh wrapping. They contain a catnip-like substance which is used to tranquilize tigers in Chinese zoos.

Kiwi plants usually bear either male or female flowers. You’ll need to buy at least one male plant to pollinate 8 females, though if growing kolomiktas for their variegated leaves I’d choose more of the showier males. A number of named hardy kiwi varieties are available, especially the argutas. Ananasnaya (also called Anna) is a grape-sized Russian hybrid. Issai, a Japanese is self-fruitful, although a male’s presence will give you bigger berries. Dumbarton Oaks is a sweet, tasty female vine found growing at that famous Georgetown garden in Washington, D.C. Another local daughter of the American kiwi revolution was discovered in the National Arboretum and bears its name. The Edible Landscaping catalog sold it as Arbor-eat-um, a name that would make me want to hide under my leaves if I were a fruit. Ken’s Red, which bears russet fruits, given enough sun, can be ordered from as a pair, with one boy and one girl, and a handsome couple they would make.

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Gardener’s Cookbook.”
Barbara Damrosch

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