From yangtao to zespri…5th time lucky

If you are a regular reader of this blog you may well be expecting a follow-upto last week’s post about Thomas Fairchild.  Unfortunately I have had technical problems  but should appear next week.  Instead…

Our parks and gardens in Britain are full of plants that originated elsewhere in the world… so many that many have become completely assimilated into what we think of as an ordinary part of our normal horticultural options  but occasionally there are things that stand out as a little different.   There’s  a vigorous almost rampant woody-stemmed climber growing against one of the walls in my garden. It has large heart-shaped slightly hairy leaves and at the moment it has a profusion of beautiful creamy white scented flowers.  I’d guess that most readers won’t recognize it  from the photo but would almost certainly recognize the fruit that follows in the  autumn.

If I tell you it originates in the mountains and forests of central and southern China but didn’t reach Britain until the mid 19thc, and wasn’t taken into large-scale cultivation outside China until less than 50 years ago, but now is a successful commercial crop in countries as diverse as Italy, Chile and New Zealand,  then maybe you can guess what it is. But if not read on ….


The plant flowering in my garden belongs to the genus  Actinidia which contains about 50-60 species [botanists disagree precisely how many] , some merely ‘ornamental’ but many capable of becoming a useful crop plant.

Fruit diversity in the genus Actinidia. A is A. arguta, C is A. chinensis, D is A. deliciosa, E is A. eriantha, I is A. indochinensis, P is A. polygama and S is A. setosa.

All Actinidia species are perennial, and are mostly deciduous climbers or scrambling plants,  although a few from warmer areas of the world are evergreen. In China,  one of these climbers has edible fruits and  is called ‘yangtao’, meaning ‘strawberry peach’. It has been cultivated there for at least 300 years  with over 400 varieties now known. Its unlikely that deliberate cultivation was extensive since most writers consistently describe the  fruit as coming from a wild plant of the mountains.  It was to be a lot longer before it was cultivated at all  in the west, and really only in the last few decades that it has entered the commercial market but not as Actinidia chinensis, a name which hardly rolls easily off the tongue, but as the kiwi fruit.

Fruit diversity in the genus Actinidia. Fruit of species used to make EST libraries are identified by letters. A is A. arguta, C is A. chinensis, D is A. deliciosa, E is A. eriantha, I is A. indochinensis, P is A. polygama and S is A. setosa.

Nor was it even a simple of case of being ‘discovered’ by Europeans and then introduced into cultivation soon afterwards. In fact it took at least 5 different collectors and 5 different attempts at introduction before it found its way into the garden and commerce.

The first was Father Pierre d’Incarville, a French Jesuit who spent 17 years at the Imperial Court in Beijing. He collected specimens (but no fruit) at Macao, soon after his arrival in China in late 1740 and sent them back to France. Rather than being feted they were fated to remain in the archives of the Jardin des Plantes, ignored and undescribed, for over a century.

Actinidia chinensis specimen collected by Robert Fortune, 1846 from Kew Herbarium

The second attempt, about a hundred years later, got slightly further. After the Opium Wars forced China to open its ports for trade, the great plant hunter Robert Fortune sent back more specimens of various actinidia species to the Horticultural Society of London and also brought back dried fruit when he returned home in 1846. They are now in the herbarium at Kew. This finally led to the  formal description and the naming of the plant most widely grown today as Actinidia chinensis in 1847. BUT that was as far as it got.

Charles Maries, 1851 – 1902

The third attempt at introduction seems to have been made in the 1880s by Charles Maries, a collector for the Veitch nurseries. He collected Actinidia kolomitka,  on Hokkaido, the northernmost of the islands of Japan, in 1877  which makes it the earliest member of Actinidia family  to enter cultivation in Britain. Normally considered an ornamental climber it does also have edible fruits and is sometimes called the Amur gooseberry. According to one of a series of articles Maries wrote for William Robinson’s The Garden in 1882 it was locally known as Cat’s Medicine and he tells his readers that he found “cats in England also extremely fond of it.”

Actinidia kolomitka,
from Kew Science

Thereafter things become a little more confusing.  Marie goes on to say “there is another Actinidia with edible fruit, which about October I found very good in flavour – something like a large green Gooseberry.”  Presumably this was Actinidia chinensis. By 1882 he says that plants of both kinds were growing at Veitch’s nursery at Coombe Wood nr Kingston, in Surrey and “have stood out the last two severe winters.” However, Hortus Veitchii appears equally clear that although Maries “detected”  this  in the North island of Japan he “failed to introduce it.”  So perhaps Maries was mistaken or perhaps the plants did not survive, although since they extremely tough that seems unlikely.

Pere Paul Farges

A 4th plant collector tried more successfully  to send back seed, this time to France.  Father Paul  Farges, was a French missionary in Sichuan and had sent seed of Actinidia chinensis, to the great French nursery firm of Vilmorin in 1898. They successfully raised plants in 1899  but the importance of this was not recognized and it was the 5th collector to introduce A.chinensis several years later who today gets all the credit.

Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, 1903-1904

This was Ernest Henry Wilson, who was in China, like Maries, plant hunting for the Veitch nursery. In particular he  was searching  for Davidia involucrata, the handkerchief tree,  but whilst doing so, amongst other things, he found a ‘new’ form of actinidia.   [Hortus Veitchii p94].  Some seeds were sent back to Veitch’s nursery, and finally actinidia began to enter cultivation. It was written up in the RHS Journal in 1903, and also got a passing mention in  Gardeners Chronicle in 1904, but in neither case with any sense of excitement. It doesn’t reach Curtis’s Botanical Magazine until 1914.

Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, 1903-1904


By 1906 Actinidia chinensis was described by Veitch’s Nursery as “a rapid grower, valuable for handsome foliage, covered with bright red hairs in a young state.”

Ernest Henry Wilson
from Arnold Arboretum Image Collection

It had not flowered, but presumably based on Wilson’s notes it was stated that “the flowers are bright yellow, and followed by edible fruits about the size of walnuts with a flavour resembling ripe goosberries.  Apart from its flowering and fruiting qualities it is a remarkedly handsome plant, and will be of great value as a pillar or pergola plant in the open garden.”

Actinidia chinensis 
Curtis’s Botanical Magazine,  (1914)

Even so Wilson who had, of course, seen it growing in the wild, wrote   confidently that “A. chinensis …has so far failed to do itself full justice; but, in the years to come, I believe it will be one of the finest ornamental climbers in cultivation.”  But perhaps the lack of commercial interest eventually persuaded him otherwise because in a manuscript about the plants he had introduced into cultivation and which remained unfinished when he was killed in 1930, Wilson mentions three different Actinidia species but not the Actinidia chinensis, even though the kiwifruit is now considered perhaps the most important of all his commercial introductions.

For more on the introduction of kiwi from the wild see:

Actinidia chinensis chinensis A. deliciosa (A.Chev.) C.F.Liang & A.R.Ferguson var. deliciosa
from Auckland Museum

Now, all the time I’ve been referring to the plant that bears what we now call kiwifruit as Actinidia chinensis, although actually it probably isn’tUnfortunately as is so often the case the taxonomy of this particular form of Actinidia is complicated and has evolved considerably over time,  [so skip the next bit if you wish to avoid having your brain tormented].  As a mere layman trying to understand it, it seems to me that although it  is sometimes referred to as Actinidia chinensis  [& to which it is closely related] when it was first described ‘officially’  in 1940 by the French botanist Auguste Jean Baptiste Chevalier, it was called  Actinidia latifolia var. deliciosa. To make matters more complex – or maybe simpler!in 1984  the commercial fruiting was officially recognised as a separate species: and named Actinidia deliciosa.  If you want to follow the intricacies of all this then look at  Kew’s science website or the one on the taxonomy of Chinese Flora.

But I’m sure what you really want to know is how it got into our gardens and why it’s called a kiwi fruit when it comes from China or Japan.  The responsibility lies with a New Zealand teacher, Mary Isabel Fraser, the principal of Wanganui Girls’ College, who took some seeds home at the end of a trip to China in 1904 where she had been visiting her sister at a Chinese mission in Yichang on the Yangtze River.

She gave them to local sheep farmers and nurserymen, Alexander and Thomas Allison,  and they grew into what was then called a Chinese  [or sometimes an Ichang] gooseberry.  The vines eventually  producing their first fruit 6 years later in 1910. They attracted the interest of a number of nurserymen, and the Allisons gave plants away. One of these lucky  recipients was a man named Hayward Wright. By the 1920s plants were being sold at several locally nurseries but they did not really catch on until Hayward Wright began to experiment and then exploit their potential  in the mild climate and rich volcanic soils of the Bay of Plenty on New Zealand’s North Island.

Hayward is now the name of the most commonly grown Actinidia variety

Wright began selecting and crossing eventually breeding a plant that yielded a much larger fruit which not only was  flavoursome but also had the commercial advantage of being long keeping. In the 1920s and 1930s it was sold as Wright’s Giant, Wright’s Large Oval, but in 1958 was renamed after Hayward.   By the late 1960s Hayward had become the standard cultivar commercially and until recently most consumers would  not have even been aware that there are other varieties.


However it was a slow start, and first commercial kiwifruit vineyard wasn’t planted in New Zealand until 1934, and it wasn’t until 1952 that  the first 20 crates of fruit were  sent to Covent Garden market in London. They sold quickly and the buyer ordered 1500 crates for the following season.  Actinidia didn’t reach the United States until six years later in 1958 and remained very much a niche market in the west until the 1970s.

As improved strains of the fruit were developed  the marketing people got involved and changed the name from Actinidia or Chinese gooseberry to  something which has little do do with the fruit but a lot to do with its image.  As it was New Zealand nurserymen who were trying to push sales of this strange hairy  bullet-like fruit into,  in 1959 it was rechristened the kiwi fruit.   []

Zespri’s Sungold

Of course once that simple name caught on the market boomed. And then came new strains of the fruit – starting with Gold which was first marketed in 1999. In 2010  three more new commercial varieties were released – an early-season gold, G3; a potentially long-storing gold called G9 known as Charm; and a new sweeter green, G14, known as Sweet Green. Orchard trials started at the same time  of  two red cultivars.

Zespri’s rivals have developed a red kiwi


As one might expect the surge in interest in the fruit meant that New Zealand soon had rival producers all round the world, notably in Italy which has become the world’s biggest producer, and Chile. New Zealand’s response was for farmers to form a state-backed co-operative – now renamed Zespri – to fight back, although it also has rivals even at home there.  However, Zespri now controls 30% of the world market and has expanded overseas themselves with grower-members in France and Japan. However in a curious twist of fate the kiwi has escaped from cultivation in New Zealand and has been designated as potentially invasive in forests!

But A. deliciosa isn’t having it all its own way. Because many other actinidia species have edible fruit attention is now being paid, especially in countries with very cold winters, to improving those vines with commercial potential.  Eastern Europe seems to be leading the way on this and there are a series of interesting videos on YouTube about these, to us, unusual sorts, which look like appearing in our greengrocers, supermarkets and home kitchen gardens sooner rather than later. Check them out at:

Actinidia KIWI BERRY – species, varieties, applications – Part 1

Actinidia KIWI BERRY – species, varieties, applications – Part 2

and why not try and grow your own from the seed of shopbought ones…….

and if that’s not enough info about Actinidia then try reading Huang Hingwen’s monograph which is available on amazon for a mere £112!


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1 Response to From yangtao to zespri…5th time lucky

  1. Fascinating story. I have a vine growing in North Hatley, Quebec, where winter temperatures can easily drop to -30C. This year for the first time, I see blossoms. So who knows, maybe we’ll be growing kiwis here, too.

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