Would You Eat a Gooseberry?

How the kiwi got its name


Kiwifruit are adorable. And like avocados, Kiwifruit have a secret past. Kiwifruit isn’t even its real name. The original name was Chinese gooseberry. It came from China, not New Zealand.

If Kiwifruit were still known as Chinese gooseberries they would have remained an odd, fuzzy afterthought, a garnish that few people knew, then alone liked. It could have been called the suede potato or the hairy berry, both real life nicknames for kiwifruit before kiwi latched on.

The gooseberry’s original name in Chinese is mihoutao. It means “macaque fruit,” named after the monkeys who loved it. It is native to the forests of the Yangtze River Valley of northern China and Zhejiang Province on the coast of eastern China. In 1904, Mary Isabel Fraser, a missionary, and headmistress of a girls school brought Chinese gooseberry seeds back from China. The seeds passed into the hands of New Zealand nurserymen named Alexander Allison, Bruno Just, and Hayward Wright. They planted the seeds and the resulting trees first bore fruit in 1910. Chinese gooseberry became a popular backyard plant in New Zealand. Some plants were sent to America and England where they produced all male plants and no fruit. New Zealand had the right climate, a long growing season of at least 240 frost-free days. The gooseberry plants thrived, but it took nearly fifty years for the gooseberry to be re-branded.

In 1959, Turners & Growers, an agricultural exporter, was considering exporting Chinese gooseberries, but there was a name confusion with another fruit Westerners called gooseberries. These gooseberries didn’t taste like Chinese gooseberries and looked more like grapes.  Importers considered another name, melonette, but decided that naming the fruit after New Zealand’s furry, brown flightless national bird, the kiwi, would help buyers feel more cozy about buying it. Also, Kiwis was the informal term for New Zealanders.

In 1985, New Zealand’s economy was not doing well.  New Zealand was known for sheep, beef, and butter. As a result, there were 70 million sheep living in New Zealand and only 3.2 million people. The national debt was mounting, the standard of living was falling, and gooseberry growers — now kiwifruit entrepreneurs — turned to their crop to lift the nation. Growers banded together to form the New Zealand Kiwifruit Authority and started a marketing campaign. Kiwifruit became synonymous with New Zealand.

Even though China has been the world’s top kiwi producer since 2014, most people still believe kiwifruit hails from New Zealand. The power of the kiwi name has spawned a kiwi counterfeiting trade in China where a New Zealand kiwi sells for much more than a local kiwi. Scammers slap New Zealand stickers on local product and package Chinese-grown kiwi in fake containers that look imported.  It’s one of the top scams in the world.

The right name can make a quirky fruit popular, encouraging people to try something new. It works with fish as well. Red snapper has become such a popular name for a fish dish that often on the West Coast rockfish is falsely called “red snapper” just to boost sales. The only true red snapper caught in the U.S. swims in the Atlantic Ocean.