Kiwifruit History Begins as Chinese Gooseberry

New Zealand's signature kiwifruit harkens back to China

Kiwi fruit
James A. Guilliam / Getty Images

Surprisingly, although it is most commonly associated with New Zealand, ​kiwifruit actually originated in the Chang Kiang Valley of China. The Chinese used it as a tonic for children and women after childbirth due to its high nutritional value but never truly enjoyed it as a fruit.

Actinidia chinensis was first exported from Asia in the early 1900s as an ornamental vine, perfect for arbors. It arrived in the United States in 1904 and found its way to New Zealand a couple of years later.

Yet it was the New Zealanders who recognized the potential of the succulent fruit, which is botanically a berry and began cultivating it for commercial profit. At the time it was commonly known as the Chinese gooseberry.

Renaming the Chinese Gooseberry

A prominent New Zealand exporter, Turners, and Growers adopted the name kiwifruit for the Chinese gooseberry in 1959, in response to anti-communist sentiments and the thinking that consumers might be offended by the existing moniker. U.S. distributors reportedly nixed the first suggested name of "melonettes" as melons and berries were subject to high import tariffs when they entered the country.

New Zealanders do not take kindly to the fruit being referred to as a kiwi, preferring kiwifruit. The kiwi is a small flightless hairy brown bird native to New Zealand, and a colloquial term for New Zealanders themselves.

Newfound Popularity for the Kiwifruit

During the novelle cuisine movement of the 1980s, the kiwifruit gained great popularity in the United States.

New cultivars include baby "kiwees," which are green and smooth, about the size of table grapes and eaten much like them, and a golden-fleshed variety with a more tropical flavor. California produces about 95 percent of the U.S. crop, though Italy is the world's leader. Of four main varieties, the most popular is the "Hayward," a variety developed by New Zealand horticulturist Hayward Wright.

The opposite growing season of New Zealand and Chile makes kiwifruit readily available all year-round in the northern hemisphere.

Kiwifruit may look unpalatable at first glance, but beneath that hairy brown exterior lies emerald green flesh and edible tiny black seeds with a flavor reminiscent of strawberries to some and pineapple to others. Kiwifruit contains a proportionately high concentration of vitamin C and also nearly as much potassium as bananas. Though most consumers peel them, the skin is edible and a powerful source of antioxidants.

As tempting as it is eaten fresh and in desserts, this sweet, yet slightly tart fruit also works well in savory dishes and contains an enzyme that can actually tenderize meat. You can also find recipes to turn them into homemade jams, wine, and liqueurs. New Zealanders frequently adorn their national dessert, pavlova, with slices of fresh kiwifruit.