1996 / 10月
Elaine Chen /photos courtesy of Hsueh Chi-kuang /tr. by Robert Taylor
My name is mihoutao, and I'm the fruit the Monkey King Sun Wukong loved best. You might not know me by my own name, but by my Western name, "kiwifruit," I'm pretty darned famous.
Most people think that like that bird they call the kiwi, I'm a native of New Zealand. But just as my drab exterior hides my sweet and juicy flesh inside, I don't often reveal my true identity. In fact, like many of the Asian immigrants who have recently been flooding into New Zealand, I too come from faraway China. But I've had my "resident status" far longer than all those newcomers-almost a century longer.
How did I come to make my long and strange journey to this land? It's a long story. . . .
Climbing aboard a 12-seater Air New Zealand plane on a domestic flight from Auckland, in less than 45 minutes we arrive at Tauranga, on the East coast of New Zealand's North Island.
The landscape we look down on from the air is very different from the unrestricted vistas of fields and open country we have seen elsewhere in New Zealand. Here, patches of green land are boxed in by hedges which look for all the world like green walls built by children for play castles.
Down on the ground, when we drive close up to these green "castles," we are in for a bigger surprise: their "walls" are remarkably high-a full 15 meters or more, as tall as a five-storey building. But unlike Taipei's skyscrapers which tower so oppressively above one, these green walls whisper with the sound of the wind in their leaves, and they are there to protect the most valuable assets of the people of Tauranga: their kiwifruit orchards.
In fact it's not just Tauranga-the kiwi-fruit is the most important crop of the whole Bay of Plenty area. Today New Zealand has more than 2700 kiwifruit orchards, with a total area of over 10,000 hectares. The fruit is exported to 60 countries around the world, and earns New Zealand well over US$300 million a year in foreign currency, making it the country's highest-earning horticultural export.
Chinese through and through
In the minds of consumers in many countries, the kiwifruit (Actinidia deliciosa) is almost synonymous with New Zealand. But few realize that in Chinese provinces such as Henan, Hebei, Shanxi, Sichuan, Hubei, Jiangxi and Guangxi, A. deliciosa and other species of the genus Actinidia are common wild fruits of mountain areas, where they go by the name of mihoutao-the "macaque peach."
In the Chinese classics, the earliest reference to Actinidia is widely believed to be this passage from the Guifeng section of the Book of Songs: "In the marsh grows chang-chu/ Tender her shoots/ Glistening beauty/ Blissfully unknowing./ In the marsh grows changchu/ Tender her blooms/ Glistening beauty/ Blissfully unfettered./ In the marsh grows changchu/ Tender her fruits/ Glistening beauty/ Blissfully unburdened."
Scholars identify the graceful, delicate-flowered and fecund changchu of the poem as mihoutao.
More reliable records begin with the poem For My Nephew, While Staying at Old Li's Near Taibai East River, by Cen Shen (715-770) of the Tang dynasty:
". . . On the well in the central courtyard/ A lattice of mihoutao/ The fragrance of rice cooked with water from the rocky spring/ Break open a crock of new wine. . . ." From these lines, we learn that at least 1200 years ago Actinidia was grown over trellises and pergolas in the courtyards of dwellings.
"In county annals from Sichuan, there are also references to Actinidia. When the great poet Du Fu was in Sichuan, Yi Yanwu of Chengdu made him a gift of some 'milky wine' brewed from mihoutao by the Daoist priests of the Qingcheng Mountains. Du composed a poem praising the wine's taste as striking a happy balance between strength and fragrance." So says Wang Mingzhong, deputy director of the Sichuan Natural Resources Institute.
Actinidia also has a place in virtually all China's ancient pharmacopoeias. In the monumental Ben Cao Gangmu (Compendium of Materia Medica) compiled by Li Shizhen (1518-1593), the "macaque peach" is described thus: "It has the shape of the pear and the color of a peach, and monkeys like to eat it; hence its name. . . . Main uses: dispels extreme thirst, hot irritability, and kidney and bladder stones; regulates the qi of the lower body; relieves rheumatism of the joints. . . ." In other words, the fruit was considered to be cooling and thirst-quenching, and able to assist digestion and relieve various illnesses.
Other herbal pharmacopoeias, such as the Ben Cao Yanyi (Amplified Materia Medica, written in 1116 by Kou Zongshi of the Song dynasty), Kai Bao Ben Cao (Materia Medica of the Kai Bao Reign, also from the Song) and Ben Cao Shiyi (Supplementary Materia Medica, from the Tang), have much to say about the mihoutao too. It is described as having "leaves the size of the palm of the hand, green on top and pale underneath, and hairy like ramie, but round"; "its seeds are many and small, and the color of mustard seeds, its branches slender and fragile. It grows 20-30 feet tall, usually supported on trees." As to where mihoutao grows: "In the lower hills some remain near the pathways, but deep in the mountains, most are eaten by monkeys." They also describe how "eating it dispels 'excess heat,'" or how "the fruit is as large as a hen's egg, and becomes sweet and edible after the first frosts; the skin can be used to make paper."
In fact, as well as being recorded in herbal pharmacopoeias, Actinidia was, and still is, put to a plethora of uses by the common people. A pesticide can be made from the roots; the stem fibers are suitable for papermaking; the sticky sap inside the stems can be used as glue; the leaves serve as fodder for livestock; fragrant oils extracted from the flowers are used to flavor foods and mihoutao wine; and oil can be pressed from the seeds.
Immediate favor with Westerners
This extraordinarily versatile Chinese plant was finally discovered, with surprise and delight, by 19th-century Western botanists and missionaries, who collected it and sent it back to enrich the gardens of their homelands.
The first Westerner to collect the mihou-tao was the Scotsman Robert Fortune, who in 1843 was sent by the Horticultural Society of London to travel throughout China in order, in the words of the agreement under which he was engaged, to "collect seeds and plants of an ornamental or useful kind, not previously cultivated in Great Britain and . . . to obtain information on Chinese gardening and agriculture." But Actinidia is dioecious -it has separate male and female plants-and Fortune's specimens were all female, so they could not have fruited.
After several such false starts, Actinidia plants grown from seed appeared for the first time in the "List of novelties" of a London nursery firm in 1904. Subsequently, it was also introduced into the USA and France.
Actinidia's most successful "migration," however, was undoubtedly to New Zealand. But unlike other nations whose collectors took great pains but with no lasting result, the plant was introduced to New Zealand almost fortuitously, by a woman missionary teacher.
It happened like this: around the turn of the 20th century, the English plant collector Ernest Wilson made Yichang in China's Jiangxi Province the base for many of his collecting expeditions. Wilson was very taken with the mihoutao, and following his enthusiastic recommendation, members of the small foreign community in Yichang tried this somewhat undistinguished-looking fruit. It was so much to their liking that some residents even sent it back to their own countries.
When Miss Isabel Fraser, a teacher and evangelist at a Church of Scotland mission station at Yichang, returned home to New Zealand in 1904, she took with her some mihoutao seed, which she gave to two brothers of the Allison family of Wanganui, who were noted horticulturists. These seeds were the origin of New Zealand's kiwifruit industry of today.
The cultivation of Actinidia in New Zealand was remarkably successful. Not only did the soil and climate suit the plant well, but local people also took a particular liking to its fruit. In 1926, a New Zealand newspaper article headlined "A Valuable New Fruit" quoted the well-known Auckland nurseryman Hayward Wright as saying that "for jams, jellies and fruit salads, it is unsurpassed." A year later, Wright himself wrote glowingly of the "Chinese gooseberry": "It is highly valuable as a fruit, for it ripens in the winter over a long period, thus making a valuable addition to our short supply of winter fruits."
This Mr. Wright rendered sterling service to the later industry by selecting improved Actinidia cultivars-98% of commercial plantings in New Zealand today are of the "Hayward" cultivar which he developed.
With continued praise from newspapers and from horticultural and gardening journals, Actinidia quickly became popular with gardeners. After it also gained the interest of the fruit-consuming public, many commercial orchardists went over to planting it.
But as more and more plantings were established, the prospect of oversupply induced New Zealand growers not only to develop outlets such as processing into jams and other products, but also to try promoting the fruit on the international market.
What was your name in the States?
Chinese gooseberries were first exported from New Zealand in a trial shipment to the United Kingdom in 1952. At that time knowledge of transport requirements over such long distances was almost non-existent, but by good fortune the fruit were sent with a shipment of lemons refrigerated to 7蚓. When they arrived on the other side of the world they were in perfect eating condition, and their excellent flavor immediately won over the British importers.
The following year, the New Zealand Fruitgrowers' Federation again shipped kiwifruits to Britain and also to Australia, and at the end of the 1950s another exporter tried to break into the US market. This move laid the foundations for New Zealand's global status in the kiwifruit industry, for it was at this time that Actinidia was baptized with its modern Western name.
In China Actinidia is most commonly known as mihoutao or, along the Yangtze River in particular, as yangtao. Because it was thought similar in taste to the European gooseberry, Europeans in China gave it names such as "Chinese gooseberry," or "Ichang gooseberry." "Itchang currant" was another variant.
After arriving in New Zealand, mihoutao were most widely known as Chinese gooseberries, or sometimes just as "Chinas" for short. In New Zealand this name was considered adequate, and even had a certain exotic ring to it which could arouse local consumers' interest. But New Zealand produce being sent for sale overseas could not very well sail under "Chinese" colors. More seriously, the name "gooseberry" suggested a fruit grown close to the ground, and as such it was almost certain to be excluded by US Department of Agriculture quarantine officers.
For this reason the American importers suggested a change of name, preferably to a short and phonetic Maori word.
In the end the New Zealand exporters plumped for the name "kiwifruit"-on the one hand because of the fruit's remarkable resemblance to New Zealand's unique, flightless national bird, the kiwi, whose round body is covered in a layer of brown plumage, and on the other because the New Zealand servicemen who fought in World War II were also commonly known as Kiwis. Thus the name could hardly have been better.
Since then the name kiwifruit has become widely established in the scientific, technical and commercial fields, except in a few countries such as France, where the fruit are called yangtao, or Italy where the scientific genus name Actinidia is used.
A unified approach
With this new and attractive name, the kiwifruit grew in popularity overseas. This led to a second wave of planting in New Zealand, and the kiwifruit industry grew steadily and profitably for the next three decades.
In 1987, however, a massive surge in production led to a glut which caused a crisis in the industry. But it also proved to be a turning point, for "to save the situation, the New Zealand government stepped in and set up the New Zealand Kiwifruit Marketing Board (NZKMB). This replaced the former system of multiple exporters, and introduced a unified approach to the business, with global coordination covering every stage from improved cultivar selection to production, packing, cool storage, transport, shipping, overseas distribution, marketing and promotion," says NZKMB new project manager Stuart Abbott.
For instance, in the area of cultivar research alone, the New Zealand government invests NZ$14 million a year. The work of the Te Puke Research Centre of Hort- Research (The Horticulture and Food Research Institute of New Zealand) is mainly devoted to the kiwifruit.
On the basis of consumer preferences, the center attempts to breed and select varieties with the most ideal flesh color, sweetness, firmness and other characteristics. "Consumers don't like a pale color, so the flesh should be as green as possible. On the other hand firmness is helpful for storage and shipment overseas. At the degree of firmness at which we harvest today, the fruit can be stored for as long as nine months," says HortResearch scientist Russell Lowe.
With such active state backing, New Zealand has maintained its leading position in the global kiwifruit industry despite strong competition from later entrants like France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Chile and the USA.
Particularly in East Asian markets, such as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, consumption of kiwifruit is growing rapidly. Last year people in Taiwan ate almost 10 million kilograms, of which more than two-thirds came from New Zealand.
They grow here too
For people in Taiwan to be eating so many imported kiwifruit seems a bit odd, for located as it is adjacent to the Chinese mainland, Taiwan has seven or eight edible wild Actinidia species of its own.
In the 1970s, Taiwan Nongcun (Taiwan Village) magazine published an article by the late Professor Chen Ke-chung of National Taiwan University's Department of Horticulture, entitled "The Discovery and Initial Cultivation of, and Research into, a New Fruit-the Mihoutao."
Chen Ke-chung was a native of Hunan, where he had seen and eaten mihoutao, which were known locally as tengli ("vine pears"). In 1974, on a visit to NTU's Highland Experimental Farm at Meifeng in Nan-tou County, looking up one day while out in the forest he was surprised to see cane after cane of mihoutao hanging from the trees. He was overjoyed, and after discussions with the then farm director Kang You-te and Department of Horticulture chairman Ma Su-hsuan, he decided to begin researching how to propagate the plants.
"It emerged that although mihoutao is very well known in China as a wild fruit, and has attracted much attention in the West, in its land of origin, even today it is left to grow wild, and is not cultivated anywhere. This really is a discredit to a country with an ancient reputation for highly developed horticultural skills," wrote Chen in his article.
However, patriotic sentiment takes second place to commercial considerations. The NTU researchers successfully developed shoot tip culture and stem cutting propagation methods for Actinidia, but the dominant position which New Zealand had already established for itself was seen as leaving no opportunity for Taiwan to enter the market, so the idea of developing the kiwifruit as a commercial crop was abandoned. NTU has merely continued with variety collection and research. Today the Highland Experimental Farm has a plot of specimen plants covering some 300 to 500 square meters, planted with wild Actinidia species from Taiwan and mainland China.
Professor Ni Cheng-chu of the horticulture department at National Chung-Hsing University has carried out cultivar selection work, but again this has not led to commercial growing. "At Taiwan's latitudes, kiwi-fruit can only be cultivated in mountain areas between 1500 and 2000 meters above sea level. But farming in the high mountains is a major cause of soil erosion, so we are simply doing academic research-we can't recommend large-scale cultivation," says Professor Ni.
However, in the north of Taiwan, ten and five years ago respectively the Hsueh-Pa Farm below Mt. Tapachien, and farms along the Northern Cross-Island Highway around Middle and Upper Pa-ling, imported young kiwifruit plants from New Zealand. "Kiwi-fruit grown in Taiwan don't have to be picked early the way they do in New Zealand to allow for their time in transit, so in terms of quality ours are even sweeter and have a better flavor. But in Taiwan we have climatic factors such as typhoons and the plum rains to contend with, and these make crop yields very erratic. This means you can't make kiwifruit a farm's main crop," says Fan Tseng-ta of Hsueh-Pa Farm.
But what of mainland China, the real homeland of the mihoutao? Having woken up to the fact that what had been considered a very ordinary wild fruit actually has an export earnings potential far beyond what anyone could have imagined years ago, in recent years the mainland has started making strenuous efforts to make up lost ground by setting up research establishments and commencing commercial cultivation.
"The mainlanders see the mihoutao as representing China, and have set up fruit research institutes in several provinces. They have great plans for the 'Chinese mihou-tao,'" says Associate Professor Chen Chung of NTU's Department of Horticulture. He recounts that although mainland researchers have selected a number of cultivars for development, when visitors from abroad go to visit, they can eat the fruit, but they can't take any seeds away with them: "They're very sensitive about it."
But to breed improved kiwifruit varieties, it is essential to collect wild seed from the mihoutao's native regions. To this end, New Zealand and mainland China have jointly established a kiwifruit research center in Si-chuan Province to collect superior varieties as the basis for future breeding programs.
Aren't the New Zealanders afraid that by working with mainland China they are creating another future competitor for themselves? Russell Lowe is optimistic: "China is in the northern hemisphere and New Zealand is in the southern. Our fruiting seasons are six months apart, so in fact they complement each other. Also, China's population is so vast that they can eat all they produce."
The Te Puke Research Centre hopes one day to be able to breed kiwifruits in different colors, to give consumers more choice. "I'm worried that consumers will get tired of always eating the same kind of kiwifruit. We need more varieties-just like apples which come in red and green," says Lowe. The center is currently developing a small variety which doesn't need peeling, so that mothers can "pop one into their children's lunch box."
Bird against monkey
Although mainland China has the advantage of numerous wild varieties, which give it the potential to develop superior cultivars with a variety of fine flavors, it lacks experience in commercialization, and has much to learn if it wishes to break into the international market. The quickest way forward would be to work with New Zealand to introduce expertise and technology in this area.
But although both sides are willing, thus far they have not been able to upgrade their level of cooperation. "Among our best varieties we have a red-centered mihoutao with a flavor almost like honey," says Wang Ming-zhong. "The New Zealanders would love to get hold of this variety." But, as he explains with regret, currently the mainland's germ-plasm resources are subject to secrecy regulations. "They could steal it, but they can't buy it"-so for the time being such varieties cannot emerge onto the international stage.
However, no-one knows how policies may change in future. If at some time the mainland authorities relax such restrictions, then all kinds of new varieties may appear on supermarket shelves.
When that happens, will they be called "kiwifruit" or "mihoutao"? It looks as if there may still be a struggle to come between the "bird" and the "monkey."
Don't these kiwifruits hanging on the vine look just like playful little macaques swinging from the branches with outstretched arms?
(left) Beside the towering hedge is a well-ordered kiwifruit orchard. Because the harvest is just over, it looks as if nothing is left of the kiwifruit vines but dry branches. But in fact they are still full of life, as they wait under the warm winter sun to throw out new shoots in the next season.
Zhiwu Ming Shi Tukao Changbian, by Wu Qijun (1789-1847) of the Qing dynasty, contains a detailed drawing of a mihoutao plant.
"A plate of yang-taw fruits," photographed by plant collector Ernest Wilson on 4 November 1908, in Sichuan Province. (courtesy of New Zealand Society for Horticultural Science)
When missionary teacher Miss Isabel Fraser returned home to New Zealand from China, she took with her some mihoutao seeds which laid the foundation of today's kiwifruit industry in New Zealand. (courtesy of New Zealand Society for Horticultural Science)
Just look at the lovable kiwi-are you sure it and the kiwifruit aren't related? (courtesy of New Zealand Tourism Office)
The first commercial shipment of kiwifruit to Britain in 1953 still went by the name of "Chinese gooseberries."
(courtesy of New Zealand Society for Horticultural Science)
Kiwifruits, complete with stickers, ready to be graded and packed.
This old kiwifruit grading mach-ine is now a museum piece. It works by tossing fruits into the air one by one: the lighter ones fly a little further than the heavier ones, separating the different sizes.
At cool-store temperatures of 0_C_ kiwifruit stay fresh for six months. This means that they can be supplied to the market gradually, keeping prices stable.
In New Zealand, kiwifruit vines are very often trained over "T-bars."
At HortResearch's Te Puke Research Centre, scientists are studying all kinds of new kiwifruit varieties, to give consumers a wider range of choice.
In the mountains near Taiwan's Northern Cross-Island Highway, some farms have begun to grow kiwifruit. However, they are not local wild varieties, but cultivars introduced from far-off New Zealand. (photo by Vincent Chang)