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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.

Hardy Kiwifruit

My husband jokes with me about our yard being "one giant experiment". We have planted a lot of different plants over the years, both ornamental and edible. We have had a lot of spectacular successes and failures in each category. As time goes on we have found some new favorites in the edible category. One of those is a hardy kiwifruit, Actinidia kolomikta. I love kiwifruit so the promise of growing some in my own backyard seemed too good to be true.

Hardy kiwifruit is a cousin of the fuzzy brown-skinned kiwifruit we see in the grocery store, Actinidia deliciosa. There are about 60 different species of Actinidia that produce edible fruits, and they are widely variable in size, shape, color and hairiness. All the fruits are considered berries and grow on woody vines that can reach 20 or more feet in length.

Actinidia deliciosa is native to Southern China and is considered to be the national fruit of China. It is hardy to Zones 7 or 8 in the U.S. depending on the variety. There are other species of Actinidia that are native as far east as Japan or as far north as Siberia, making them hardy to Zone 3 or even 2 in some cases.

Actinidia deliciosa made its way to New Zealand in the early 1900's and were grown mainly as a novelty by home gardeners. Many thought they tasted like gooseberries, so they were nicknamed the "Chinese Gooseberry" though they are not related to the gooseberry. It wasn't until the 1950's that fruits were commercially grown, exported and given the name "kiwifruit" in reference to New Zealand's brown furry national bird, the kiwi. Today New Zealand is the second largest producer of kiwifruit, with Italy being the number one producer, and Chile the third largest producer. The U.S. and several other countries produce kiwifruit, but all at a fraction of that produced by Italy, New Zealand and Chile.

Homeowners in the Southern U.S. can grow Actinidia deliciosa, but those of us in Zone 6 and lower are limited to several species that are all considered to be "hardy kiwifruit". The most commonly grown species are: A. arguta, and A. kolomikta which have fruit with smooth green skin and flesh, and A. purpurea, which has fruit with reddish skin and flesh. All the hardy kiwifruits are about the size and shape of a grape, and their skins are edible, unlike their brown furry cousin A. deliciosa.

Kiwifruit vines produce either male or female flowers, so a minimum of one male and one female vine is needed to produce fruit. One male vine can pollinate somewhere between 6 and 9 female vines. The flowers bloom early in the spring, leaving them vulnerable to damage from late frosts.

Actinidia arguta 'Issai' is one of the only hardy kiwifruit that is self-fertile, meaning it produces both male and female flowers. It is also reportedly bears fruit as quickly as a year after planting and is small enough to plant in a large container. Most hardy kiwifruit vines take upwards of three years or more to produce fruit.

I planted two hardy kiwifruit vines, A. kolomikta 'Arctic Beauty' when we first moved into our house in 2005. The 'Arctic Beauty' variety is one of the only hardy kiwifruits that prefers partial shade, and it is on the small side, growing 10 to 12 feet long. Despite my careful planting, one of the vines promptly died that first year. I had never gotten around to labeling which was the male and which was the female vine, so I ended up having to purchase a new set of male and female vines. That new set took off with great vigor and quickly covered the two trellises that my husband built on the north side of our garage for them.

One unique feature of the 'Arctic Beauty' variety is the striking pink and white variegated leaves, particularly on the male vine. They are gorgeous, and create a nice feature in our landscape. In the years after I planted our kiwifruit, I heard a lot of negative feedback from other people in the area that had also planted hardy kiwifruit, complaining that they had never had their plants produce a single fruit. I started worrying about our plants. Were they destined to just be pretty foliage, or would they ever produce the coveted kiwifruit?

About four years after planting our 'Arctic Beauty' kiwifruit, we harvested our first fruit. We only had about six grape sized kiwifruit, but they were delicious. In the years following that first harvest, the vines produced more and more fruit, even during the horrible drought in 2012. For the last few years the female vine has been consistently covered in fruit. The female vines produce attractive white flowers in the spring, and the fruit spend the entire summer growing and maturing.

Fruits begin to ripen in late September and October, becoming slightly soft and extremely sweet. Last year we barely got to eat any of the fruits because the birds beat us to them. We will need to cover the female vines with netting to keep them away if we want to harvest any this year. Vine-ripened fruits have the best flavor, but unripe fruits may be harvested if frost threatens and allowed to ripen in the refrigerator.

We have had to prune our kiwifruit vines out of necessity because they are extremely vigorous growers, threatening to swallow the side of our garage if we're not careful. But selective pruning can not only keep the vines a manageable size, it can increase fruiting. Pruning to manage size can be done at any time of year. Pruning to increase fruiting is best done during the winter dormant season. While the vines are dormant, it is a good idea to remove any tangled or broken vines, and to prune out any vines that fruited the previous year. Flowers and later fruit are produced on one year old vines. Ideally these one year old vines should be spaced about a foot apart on the trellis or other support.

Hardy kiwifruit are one fruit that is rarely seen for sale in the produce department of your local grocery store. They are simply too delicate and too perishable to ship great distances. I saw them for sale once at a major grocery store last fall, and when I went back to buy more the next week they were no longer available. Occasionally they may be found at farmer's markets or specialty stores sold as "baby kiwifruit". Kiwifruit are great sources of Vitamins C, K and E, fiber, and potassium. They are a truly unique addition to any landscape and quite tasty as well.

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