Kiwis in Tompkins County? It’s true. In the fall, when you’re browsing at the Farmers’ Market or picking up your fruit share, you might find it: a greenish fruit that looks like a slightly oversized grape. Inside, it looks like a miniature version of the imported kiwi fruit you find at the grocery store, with bright green flesh and a ring of small black seeds. And it tastes amazing! Can this exotic-looking fruit really be local?
The hardy kiwi isn’t native to these parts, but it grows well in Tompkins County. And although we have to wait until late summer or fall to harvest and eat hardy kiwis, spring is the time to plant the vines.
The supermarket kiwi’s sibling – Most of us are familiar with the imported kiwi, that oval fruit with a fuzzy skin that’s about the size of a large lemon. It’s grown commercially in warmer climates than ours, such as New Zealand, California, and Italy. Its smaller relative, the hardy kiwi (also known as the arctic kiwi or the kiwi berry) is much less well known.
The hardy kiwi fruit has a smooth skin, so it doesn’t need to be peeled before eating. Most people think it tastes even better than the larger kiwi—sweeter, and less acidic. It’s an excellent source of Vitamin C. And amazingly, it grows in Tompkins County!
What do you do with hardy kiwis? – Hardy kiwis taste so good when fresh that preserving them isn’t usually an issue. However, you can make jam from them, or freeze them whole to eat as a cool treat. Local backyard kiwi grower Adam Engst reports that they also dry well in a food dehydrator: remove the stems before drying, and they turn into “kiwi raisins”.
According to Lucy Garrison of the Finger Lakes Fruit Bowl, timing is important for eating hardy kiwis because they’re not tasty when they’re under-ripe. They continue to ripen after picking, and you may need to keep them on the kitchen counter for a day or two until they’re fully ripe and soft.
Grow your own – The plant is a native of Japan, Korea, northern China, and Siberia, and it’s easy to grow here in Tompkins County. But because our climate is a bit harsh for the plants, the yield of fruit can vary from year to year. The vines bloom early, and the blossoms are sensitive to spring frosts. Also, in the early spring there may also not be enough bee activity to pollinate them fully.
But whether or not kiwi vines produce a lot of fruit, they are an attractive addition to the garden. In fact, they were first introduced to this country as ornamental plants. They’re vigorous climbers that will easily cover a trellis or fence, and the male plants have variegated foliage while the females produce delicate white flowers (since these plants are either male or female, you’ll need to plant both sexes to get fruit). And hardy kiwis have few natural pests or diseases. You can see some mature plants in the garden at Cornell Cooperative Extension on Willow Avenue–they cover the arbor over the picnic tables.
For more information on growing hardy kiwis, check out this page from the Cornell University Department of Horticulture. Locally propagated hardy kiwi plants are available from Edible Acres in Trumansburg.
The Kiwi Korners farm in central Pennsylvania is breeding hardy kiwis for better production. So in the future we may have a more reliable supply of these delicious, unusual fruits!
Finding locally grown hardy kiwis – Mansfield Farm in Burdett, NY is a local hardy kiwi grower, and you can find their kiwis at GreenStar Natural Foods Market and in Finger Lakes Fruit Bowl fruit shares.