Kiwi Vines - Hardy Plants With Surreal Foliage

Tricolored Leaves Offer Unusual Spring Foliage

Male arctic kiwi vines (image) have three colors on their leaves. This pic is from spring.
Male arctic kiwi vines can have leaves with three colors. David Beaulieu

Plant Taxonomy of Hardy Kiwis:

Plant taxonomy classifies the hardy kiwis (or "arctic kiwis") with which I deal here as Actinidia kolomikta. 'Arctic Beauty' (sometimes misspelled "Artic") is the cultivar that I, myself grow. Another option for hardy kiwis is Actinidia arguta. Both are distinct from the "kiwis" commonly sold in the produce section.

Plant Type for Hardy Kiwis:

Hardy kiwis are deciduous, woody vines.

Characteristics of Kiwi Vines:

For many (myself included), the attraction in growing kiwi vines is their variegated foliage. As the leaves emerge in spring, they're green; but they soon pick up splotches of white. As an encore, some leaves then develop pink tips. Small white blooms appear in spring, but kiwi vines aren't grown primarily for their blooms (photo). Kiwis are climbers of the "twining" type. The vines of Arctic Beauty kiwi plants may eventually reach a length of 15-20 feet. Actinidia arguta is more vigorous and may attain greater heights but is less hardy.

Planting Zones for Kiwi Vines:

Indigenous to the Far East, hardy kiwis can be grown in planting zones 4-8.

Sun and Soil Requirements for Kiwi Vines:

Plant kiwi vines in a loamy, well-drained soil and be sure to provide adequate water. The plants tolerate a range of light conditions from sun to shade, but greater exposure to the sun often results in superior color in the variegated leaves.

Outstanding Feature of Kiwi Vines:

Arctic Beauty kiwis' foliage is randomly variegated. Better still, it can be tri-colored, flashing colors of pink, white and green (see picture above). This unusual characteristic is, clearly, its outstanding feature (for the ornamental grower, at least). Moreover, the white color in the leaves bears an interesting "frosty" appearance. The first time you see this plant in full color, you'll do a double-take, questioning whether the color is even natural, making it an extremely fun plant to grow in your landscaping. Look at my larger kiwi vine picture; at first glance, so surreal is the white color that a novice could easily be fooled into thinking the leaves were spray-painted.

Care for Kiwi Vines:

For optimal display, kiwi vines are best grown on supporting structures, such as sturdy trellises (mature plants are heavy), arbors, pergolas or wooden fences. According to the University of Minnesota Extension, pruning (to be performed in winter) should focus on selecting the "straightest and most vigorous" shoot a year after planting and treating it after that as the permanent trunk (i.e., prune out other shoots, so as to concentrate vigor in the one shoot).

Problems in Growing Kiwi Vines:

  • Spring's variegation may fade by summer
  • Growers may experience a waiting period for variegation to appear
  • Leaves may be damaged by frost
  • Rabbits may eat the branches in winter
  • Cats may eat the leaves

In my Arctic Beauty kiwi vine's second spring, the leaves had just barely unfurled when my zone 5 region suffered a frost. The existing leaves were ruined. New ones (mainly green, not brilliantly variegated leaves) replaced them, and the plant remained healthy, but I was robbed of the color display for that year.

Uses for Kiwi Vines:

Trained up a supporting structure, kiwi vines can function as privacy screens for the summer. However, since they lose their leaves in fall, kiwis are not useful for year-round privacy screening. But the beauty of their variegated leaves gives you another reason to train them on a supporting structure: namely, to display them most effectively as specimens. The shade tolerance of kiwi plants makes them an option for shady areas where many other vines wouldn't perform well.

Hardy Kiwis: What About the Fruit?:

Kiwi vines are dioecious; female kiwis will fruit if accompanied by a male. Many gardeners, however, as mentioned above, treat kiwi plants as ornamentals, forgoing fruit production. In such cases, growers are more interested in the variegated foliage of kiwi vines (especially the unusual pink splotches) than in their fruit; and since the variegated foliage is more striking on male kiwis than on females, those who plant them as ornamentals will grow exclusively male plants.

That's precisely my approach, as I grow one lonely male 'Arctic Beauty' kiwi vine. Consequently, having no expertise in kiwi fruit production, I'll mention the fruit only in passing: in comparison to the kiwis at the supermarket (Actinidia deliciosa), the fruit is said to be smaller, not covered with a fuzzy skin, and similar in taste.

The foliage display on kiwi vines is not static. I'll provide an example based on my observations of my plants this year (yours may behave differently). As mentioned above, leaves start out green in spring. The first change I noticed was a bit of white at the tips. The white then spread, and, as it did, the pink emerged at the tips (although some leaves develop pink tips before there is any whitening). The pink, in turn, then began spreading into and merging with the white, creating a color that was no longer either white or the brilliant pink that I saw earlier (and that I captured in the photo above). These changes occur gradually, over the course of the spring. At some point in summer, the color can fade, leaving the plant rather uninteresting.

One winter, rabbits ate some of the branches of my Arctic Beauty kiwi vines. Ever since wild rabbit control has been part of my kiwi vine care regimen.

A rather curious problem growers of kiwis report is the predilection cats have for the plants' leaves. To address this problem, you may wish to consider using cat repellents around your kiwis. In my research into arctic kiwis, I have not come across any references to their being poisonous plants, but it's always best to be on the safe side and keep pets and children away from plants you don't know to be edible for certain.