Have you ever heard of a Chinese Gooseberry? You might be asking yourself, “what is a Chinese gooseberry?” Today’s episode is going to take you on a long journey from California to New Zealand to China as we dive deep into the history behind this humble fruit. Here in the states we know the Chinese gooseberry simply as kiwifruit or kiwis.
Kiwifruit has been around in china for centuries. The first recorded description of kiwifruit dates back to the 12th century China during the Song Dynasty. It was harvested from the wild and consumed for medicinal purposes. The Chinese called the fruit mihoutao, or macaque fruit after the macaque monkeys that loved to feast on this sweet snack. This was not a plant or species that the Chinese cultivated or bred. That all changed in the early 1900s thanks to Mary Isabel Fraser of Dunedin, New Zealand.
Mary Isabel Fraser was born in Dunedin, New Zealand on March 20, 1863. She went by her middle name Isabel. Isabel grew up to be an educated woman became the principal of Wanganui Girls’ College. Under her direction, it became the largest girls’ boarding school in New Zealand. Slowly but surely the school began to wear on Isabel. The buildings and grounds were inadequate and Isabel had to spend a lot of her time juggling teaching and administrative duties with various building projects.
In 1901 she attempted to resign from her position. However, it was refused. Instead she was offered another teacher to help relieve some of the load. This new teacher caught tuberculosis and Isabel found herself back at square one. In 1903 she was finally granted a leave of absence.
Isabell Goes to China
She took off for Japan to meet up with her sister Katie who had been teaching there. They traveled to China to visit some schools that Katie had taught at earlier in her life. While they were there, Isabel came across some Actinidia delicious seeds and took them back with her to New Zealand.
The nurseryman at the girls’ college, Alexander Allison took on a grand experiment. Could he make these mysterious seeds grow? Eventually he was successful and the kiwifruit as we know it today was born.
Around the same time these seeds were making their way to New Zealand, the species was also being experimented with as a potential commercial crop in England and the U.S. However, both attempts failed miserably. Britain’s Veitch Nursery successfully grew plants from the seeds. However, they were all male plants and wouldn’t produce fruit. The U.S. had a similar setback.
Meanwhile, Alexander Allison managed to do what the United States Department of Agriculture and the Veitch Nursery could not, grow thriving, fruit-yielding plants.
The fruit was branded as a Chinese gooseberry because it had the flavor of a ripe gooseberry. They became incredibly popular with US and British serviceman who were stationed in New Zealand in WWII. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, retired military personnel were excited to see kiwifruit on store shelves. Exports started arriving first in England and then made their way to California. This is the fruit we know and love today.
The Chinese Gooseberry Becomes A Kiwifruit
So obviously when we go to the grocery store we don’t buy Chinese gooseberries. We buy kiwifruit. Where did that name come from? In 1962, New Zealand growers began calling it kiwifruit for export marketing. Savvy marketers decided on a name change to increase interest and demand for this exotic fruit. In 1974 they settled on kiwifruit.
In New Zealand and Australia, the word “kiwi” refers to the kiwi bird. It is also often used as a nickname for New Zealanders. Many New Zealanders view the term as a symbol of pride and endearment.
Different Varieties of Kiwifruit
Now let’s talk different varieties. The most common type is fuzzy kiwifruit. That’s what you’re likely going to find going into a grocery store. These have a fuzzy skin. The entire kiwifruit is edible. However, many people peel the skin on these because of the unpleasant fuzzy texture.
Golden kiwifruit have a smoother skin. The flesh on these ranges in color from a bright green to an almost clear yellow. This is a sweeter and more aromatic kiwifruit.
Finally there are kiwi berries. These are edible fruits roughly the size of a large grape. They are similar in taste to the fuzzy kiwifruit. They have a thin, smooth green skin. It doesn’t have the fuzzy exterior seen on the fuzzy kiwifruit.
Kiwifruit continues to be popular today. In 2015, it was a billion dollar export for New Zealand. It is now widely cultivated in China and they have become major kiwifruit producers over the years. In 2018 they produced half of the world’s kiwifruit. The top 10 producers of kiwifruit are in order from most to least, China, Italy, New Zealand, Iran, Greece, Chile, Turkey, France, United States and Portugal. I was surprised to see Italy at #2. I thought it would be China then New Zealand. However, it makes sense when you know a little bit about how kiwifruit is grown.
Kiwifruit grows on vines, similar to how grapes are grown. Italy already had a great infrastructure in place to support grape production. These techniques were simply adapted to support kiwifruit. In 1989 they became the leading producer of kiwifruit.
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