Bring on the Kiwi Berries
This new Pacific Northwest crop is growing up
STORY AND PHOTOS BY JENNIFER CRAIN
Every year Burnt Ridge, Dolan’s fruit- and nut-growing operation located east of Chehalis, harvests thousands of pounds of hardy kiwifruits from 200 cultivated vines—grown on trellises, not in the forest canopy. The wooden and wire bracing groans beneath the weight of the grape-sized, fuzzless fruits.
Think of a hardy kiwi as a distilled version of the fuzzy supermarket variety: smaller, sweeter, more aromatic, and encased in a smooth, edible skin. The fruits are still so new to consumers that the market has yet to settle on a name. They’re sold as baby kiwis in Oregon, kiwi grapes in British Columbia, and as kiwi berries in many of Washington’s co-ops, farmers’ markets, and specialty grocery stores. “Berry” is botanically accurate: each fruit emerges from a single ovary and cradles its seeds inside a mass of pulp.
Kiwi berry history in the U.S. began in 1877, when an explorer introduced a Japanese variety of the plant. Soon, other species from Asia and Russia began to appear in home gardens and arboretums. Gardeners and horticulturalists of the time, smitten with any plant that could blanket a wall, praised the vines for their vigorous, twining growth and ample foliage. It was a century before the fruit’s potential was considered.
For a generation, consumers in the United States have been familiar with the brown fuzzy kiwifruits from New Zealand. Due to the grocer’s habit of stocking them next to the bins of mangoes, papayas, and avocados, we tend to associate them with the tropics. But plants in the Actinidia genus don’t grow near the equator; fuzzy kiwifruits are native to southern China and grow best in temperate zones. Italy leads the world in kiwifruit production, followed by New Zealand, Chile, and Greece. In the United States, most fuzzy kiwifruits are grown in northern and central California.
As their name would suggest, hardy kiwifruit vines can withstand even cooler conditions, down to minus 25 degrees. According to Jim Gilbert, co-owner of One Green World Nursery in Portland, this makes them a good match for our geography. Kiwi berries thrive in the Pacific Northwest, with robust yields and no challenge from predators or blight. About 140 acres of hardy kiwifruit vines are now planted in western Oregon, the largest domestic producer of kiwi berries.
Gilbert helped jump-start commercial production of the fruit in this region. He first tasted ‘Ananasnaya,’ the favored commercial cultivar, in the mid-1980s at the North Willamette Research Extension Center in Aurora, Oregon. Intrigued by the novelty of the fruit, he and his partner, Lorraine Gardner, gathered cuttings from eastern Russia, the hardy kiwi’s place of origin, where wild vines grow in the treetops of the local hardwood forests. They also gathered samples from a botanic garden in Ukraine. When the plants finally matured, Gilbert was surprised to discover that the fruits were inferior to those he first tasted in his home state.
Michael Dolan was likely the first to grow kiwi berries commercially in Washington, at Burnt Ridge Nursery. He acquired his first vines in the early 1980s from a fellow member of the North American Fruit Explorers who brought back his own cuttings from Russia. Dolan later bought ‘Ananasnaya’ (the name means “pineapple-like”) vines from the Aurora center to propagate as a crop.
Though he still explains the fruit to Olympia Farmers Market shoppers every week, Dolan says public awareness and demand are increasing, “We could sell twenty times more than what we grow.”
Dennis Schultz, of Greenwater Farm in Port Townsend, began growing hardy kiwis after attending a seminar by Oregon growers in 1996. Schultz says his best harvest yielded around 10,000 pounds of fruit, a crop he expects to exceed this season. If that’s the case, he’ll need more sales outlets.
“Early in September people start asking, ‘Where’s the Port Townsend kiwi man?’” Schultz says. “By the end of September all the berries are gone and we come into the market with a fresh new fruit and people are hungry for it.” Fresh kiwi berries start to taper off by the end of October.
Since they don’t have to be peeled, kiwi berries are best eaten out of hand, like a blueberry or grape. Running a bit sweeter than fuzzy kiwifruits and arriving just as parents are packing school lunches again, they are a natural pick for kids. They also have about twice the vitamin C of an orange and their potassium content is on par with bananas.
Though easy to pop in your mouth, their abundance, especially for home growers, may call for some creativity in the kitchen. Will Taylor, Chef de Cuisine at Water Street Café in Olympia, says the delicate tartness of the kiwi berry doesn’t hold up well to heat so he prefers them in raw preparations, paired with tomatoes, melons, or spicy greens.
“As soon as you start muddling it and messing with it, I think you lose a lot of flavor… you lose a lot of texture,” he says.
Still, he likes them in gazpacho and suggests experimenting with kiwi berries in herbed summer cocktails by combining the fruit with gin or vodka and adding thyme, rosemary, or bay leaf. Dennis Schultz says he’s crushed them to make a good wine, though the difficulty of separating the fruit’s fine pulp from the juice has kept him from making it on a commercial scale.
A boom harvest this year would help give the fruit more visibility, perhaps inspiring consumers to make salsas, preserves, or their own batches of kiwi berry wine. Michael Dolan says it will be years before the fruit becomes part of the public’s produce lexicon, but he thinks the day will come.
“It will probably take another generation before there are enough growers,” he says. “Things go in and out of fashion. It’s like that with a lot of crops. It just takes time.”
Find Greenwater Farm’s kiwi berries at farmers’ markets in the U-District, West Seattle, Ballard, Magnolia, Lake City, Columbia City, and at the Port Townsend Co-op.
For plant stock, contact Burnt Ridge Nursery and Orchards, who sell regularly at the Seattle Tilth Spring Plant Sale. Find their kiwi berries at the Olympia Farmers Market, and throughout the region in specialty markets and grocery stores. burntridgenursery.com.
Jennifer Crain is a freelance writer in Olympia who wishes kiwi berry season was a couple of weeks longer. Learn more about her work at jennifercrain.com.
Growing Kiwi Berries
You don’t have to be an orchardist to enjoy homegrown kiwi berries. Just one high-producing vine can supply you (and a number of your neighbors) with plenty of late-season fruits for snacking and experimenting with in the kitchen.
To grow: Plant kiwi berry vines in two to three feet of well-drained soil. Vines thrive in any type of garden soil in sun, part shade, or shade, depending on variety. Plant in areas without a history of strawberry, blackberry, nightshades, or oak trees. Wind may cause fruits to rub against each other and form calluses, so plant in a protected area. Young vines need moist roots but are sensitive to standing water. Mulch to retain moisture and discourage weeds.
To pollinate: Actinidia vines are dioecious, requiring two plants, a female producer and a male pollinator. One male can pollinate up to eight females. A few self-fertile cultivars exist, though they produce more fruit with a pollinator.
To brace and train: Kiwi vines require a sturdy support. For vigorous varieties, construct three T-bar frames, placed ten feet apart. Plant male vines within 50 feet of females. You can also train kiwis up the outer limbs of a shade-tolerant tree, such as a hemlock or cedar (they will choke out a fir.) Males can climb the tree un-pruned. Prune female vines to stay on lower branches. Less vigorous varieties can be trained along a sturdy fence.
To maintain: Prune established vines in late winter or early spring, when dormant. Head back last year’s fruiting canes to 10 to 12 buds. Every few years, prune back weak, twisted, and broken canes. If trellised, heavily prune back male vines in the summer.
Recommended varieties: Hardy Kiwifruit (Actinidia arguta) grows vigorously and produces the most fruit. Vines of the ‘Ananasnaya’ variety can each bear 100 pounds. They will tolerate sun or part shade. ‘Issai’ or ‘Early Cordifolia’ are slightly less productive varieties. Arctic Beauty Kiwifruit (Actinidia kolomikta) vines are less vigorous and yield a more manageable harvest.