Although the kiwi fruit, once referred to as the "Chinese gooseberry," has been grown and collected from the wild for centuries in Asia, it only recently has become commonly available in the Western world. This hen's egg-sized fruit is covered with a brown, fuzzy skin and has a melting green and very tasty pulp. Fuzzy kiwi, which we can purchase readily from our grocery stores, cannot be grown in Pennsylvania because of its cold tenderness and long growing season. A relative of this kiwi, though, the hardy kiwi (belonging to the species Actinidia arguta and Actinidia kolomikta) is much more cold hardy than the plant of the commercially available fruit. Hardy kiwi is of interest due to its flavor, relatively smooth (and edible) skin, "out of hand" eating size (about the size of a large grape), and its good shelf life. Commercial plantings have been established in several locations in Pennsylvania, but success does require a commitment to learning the nuances of growing the crop. Hardy kiwis have some horticultural traits that must be understood:
- Male and female flowers are born on different plants, so both males and females must be planted in roughly a 1:6 ratio of males to females.
- The plants often take several years to mature and usually do not bear fruit until they are 5 to 9 years old.
- Although the plants are extremely winter hardy--tolerating temperatures as low as -30°F--they develop shoots early in the spring that are extremely sensitive to frost. In most years, we see some shoot "burning" due to frost, although the plant usually survives, regrows, and fruits despite some spring shoot removal. If flowers are frosted, fruit will not develop that year.
- Hardy kiwi are extremely vigorously growing vines that require a substantial supporting trellis.
Despite the challenges, once one has sampled the fruit, kiwi growing gains appeal. The fruit is aromatic with fuzzy kiwi, banana, strawberry, mint, and pear flavors contained in the fruit of various varieties.