Inventing a New Fruit

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The New Zealand botanists who run the Bay of Plenty fruit breeding station HortResearch view the improvement of kiwifruit as nothing short of a patriotic duty. Their industry handbook, "Kiwifruit: Science and Management," even invokes America's most horticultural president, Thomas Jefferson, declaring, "The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add an useful plant to its culture."

Since 1976, it has been the fondest wish of HortResearch breeder Russell Lowe to provide New Zealand with a useful new kiwifruit. Like all breeders of his generation, he lived in the shadow of the great fruit breeder Hayward Wright, who perfected the classic green kiwifruit, Actinidia deliciosa, for market.

But as early as 1976, Lowe wondered about the potential of another species of kiwifruit, the golden-fleshed Actinidia chinensis. In contrast to the tart, green A. deliciosa, this is unabashedly sweet, with golden and sometimes even red flesh.

In 1987, Lowe began propagating seedlings, then crossbreeding them. He needed a fruit that packed, stored and shipped well. Most of all, it needed to taste good--six months after harvest, halfway around the world from where it was grown. After what Lowe estimates were "hundreds and hundreds" of rejects, in 1992 he had a sweet, gold contender, with an odd little beak on the end.

The next step was market research. Backed by a stricken kiwifruit industry, Lowe began scouting Bay of Plenty kiwi orchards for the best test sites. "I didn't want hobbyists with a dirty little corner of the orchard to spare," says Lowe.

After several years of testing, refining and perfecting the fruit, the verdict was in: Lowe had done it. New Zealand had a yellow-fleshed fruit that matured early, had the sweetness of a mango and the novelty value of a mangosteen. New Zealand would pin its hopes on Lowe's new fruit.

This time the former Kiwifruit, now Zespri, Marketing Board not only sewed up the plant variety rights, it patented the trade name: Zespri Gold. The cultivar's more technical name, Hort 16a, comes from the plot position in Lowe's test orchard.

Unlike the green Hayward, so dubbed in honor of Hayward Wright, Lowe's cultivar will never bear his name. It will always be either Zespri Gold or Hort 16a. "We made it deliberately obscure and boring so there was no conflict with the commercial name of Zespri," says Murray Judd, Lowe's boss at HortResearch.

But go back to the HortResearch reference book and there is no mistaking the pleasure and pride that he and Lowe take in Hort 16a. It brings to mind something else Jefferson wrote about the importance of introducing a useful new fruit: "One service of this kind rendered to a nation is worth more to them than all the victories of the most splendid pages of their history and becomes a source of exalted pleasure to those who have been instrumental to it."

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