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Oct. 2, 2023

The mystery of the Michigan State kiwi

Here's the story of a delicious, nutritious and decidedly Spartan fruit that you've probably never heard of

Reading time: 20 minutes


Robert Williams knows that most people aren’t familiar with the Michigan State kiwi. He just doesn’t understand why that is.


Williams, a Spartan who earned his doctorate in anthropology from Michigan State University in 1980, now owns and operates Broken Shovel Kiwi Farm in Washington state, where he grows nine varieties of hardy kiwi.


These kiwi plants have adapted to survive in harsher climates than the fuzzy kiwis you find in grocery stores, which prefer warmer growing conditions and can’t tolerate the cold winters experienced by places like Michigan and Washington.

Robert Williams stands in front of hardy kiwi vines and trellises at his farm in the foothills of the Cascade Range.
“Photo of elderly MSU graduate pretending to be a real farmer (dirt on jeans is real, however),” writes Robert Williams, who earned a doctorate in anthropology in 1980 from Michigan State University and now owns Broken Shovel Kiwi Farm in Washington state. Credit: Courtesy Robert Williams

Like their famous fuzzy counterparts, hardy kiwis are incredibly nutritious and exceedingly delicious, Williams said, especially the Michigan State variety. When he sells them at his local farmers market, customers buy one basket to eat while they shop and a second on their way out to take home.


“They’re very good for snacking,” he said. “The Michigan State kiwi is a little less dense, a little bit juicier and still has a nice strong kiwi flavor. It’s perfect for a warm fall day. They also make a wonderful liqueur.”


Michigan State kiwi have become a fan favorite at the farmers market for MSU alum Robert Williams, a kiwi farmer in Washington state. Credit: Courtesy Robert Williams

It’s easy to imagine that elixir would be a hit at tailgate parties at MSU, he said, if only anyone in Michigan had ever heard of the kiwis.


“Here I am in Washington wondering, when Michigan’s climate and soil is a good match for these plants, why I don’t hear of anyone growing or talking about these amazing plants in Michigan,” he wrote in a fateful email to MSUToday. “Or, more specifically, at MSU.”


The gauntlet had been thrown, and we were naively confident that we could find out where this plant came from, how it got its name and explain why you can’t get Michigan State kiwi in our dining halls.


But the truth was we had no idea what we were getting into. Before long, we were diving decades into the past, becoming card-carrying fruit explorers and learning about globe-trotting Spartans who were probably unaware of what they’d started.


An email leaves us stumped


At first, we thought we’d respond to Williams’ message within a day or two, after sending a few emails of our own to friends across campus. MSU is a place where you can’t blow on a dandelion without one of its seeds landing on a plant expert.


The academic heft of that expertise is carried by two colleges: Natural Science and Agriculture and Natural Resources. Between the two, they have world-class staff, students and faculty versed in virtually every facet of our photosynthetic friends.


Then there’s MSU Extension, which works to share the university’s actionable expertise and knowledge with Michigan’s businesses and communities, including farms and growers.


Michigan State is also home to the iconic Beal Botanical Garden and the historic MSU Herbarium, which has more than a half million specimens, including entries from William James Beal himself. The two institutions have been helping folks understand and appreciate plants for more than 150 years apiece.


And between MSU’s volunteer gardeners and professional landscape and grounds crew with Infrastructure Planning and Facilities, there’s no shortage of people committed to caring for the plants on campus.


If MSU had cultivated its own kind of kiwi here, someone would know. Only they didn’t.

A kolomikta kiwi, or arctic kiwi, grows in the Beal Botanical Garden. A small sign shares that this kiwi grows in temperate Eastern Asia and belongs to a family that includes three genera and around 300 subspecies, of which, 35 to 40 produce gooseberries sold as kiwifruit. The kolomikta vine in the photo has green leaves, but they also can contain hues of pink and white, which may attract pollinators, the sign says. The sign’s text concludes with the fact that the plant also contains actinidine, a compound that attracts cats.
A kolomikta kiwi — also called an arctic kiwi — grows in the Beal Botanical Garden at Michigan State University. Although it’s a kiwi at Michigan State, it’s not a Michigan State kiwi (which is a different species). Credit: Matt Davenport/MSU

That’s not to say our emails were fruitless. We learned that MSU Extension had published a guide to lesser-known fruits that Michiganders can grow, including hardy kiwi.


We also learned that there are two documented arctic kiwi vines on campus: one in the botanical garden and one growing near the Plant Biology Laboratories.


The arctic kiwi is another type of hardy kiwi, we learned, grown primarily for its ornamental vines. Its fruit, however, isn’t anything to write home — let alone MSUToday — about.


Michigan State’s kolomikta kiwi, or arctic kiwi, vine can be found in the Beal Botanical Garden near the Main Library. Credit: Matt Davenport/MSU

The bottom line was nobody we contacted on campus had any record or knowledge of the Michigan State kiwi. That meant the kiwi wasn’t bred under the official umbrella of MSU research or outreach. The plant was something different, a sort of botanical black op, and we were going to have to do some digging.


Internet searches of “Michigan State kiwi” turned up a handful of results, mostly nurseries growing the vines. But the websites’ stories on where and how this hardy kiwi originated didn’t always agree with each other or with what little we knew, casting a shadow of suspicion over everything we read.


For example, some sites claimed the variety was brand new and developed at MSU, which clearly wasn’t the case. Others said the fruits were discovered on campus in the 1980s on a tennis court or near the library, depending on the source.


To get to the bottom of this, we realized we’d need to talk to real people with some real knowledge. Unfortunately, we had only one lead there and, judging by the tone we ascribed to his email when we read it, he wasn’t our biggest fan.


The ‘Bad Kiwi Farmer’


Any trepidation we felt before calling Williams evaporated the moment he answered his phone. He was warm, gregarious and prone to self-deprecation.


When asked if he had any advice for readers who may want to grow their own hardy kiwis, he replied, “Not really. Just start growing them and you’ll find, like I did, that they will tolerate a lot of mistakes.”


He said this, despite running two farm sites covering more than five acres with nearly 200 vines representing nine varieties of hardy kiwi.


“I can tell people what mistakes not to make, though,” he added. (We couldn’t see him, but it sounded like he was smiling.) “I want to start a blog someday and call it ‘Bad Kiwi Farmer.’”


Williams was also patient with our lack of education about the Michigan State kiwi and hardy kiwis in general. He could sympathize.

“They’re exceptional, and they’re perfect for Michigan.” - Robert Williams, Michigan State University graduate and owner of Broken Shovel Kiwi Farm

He first learned about them in 2010, when he was retiring from his career as a real estate appraiser and looking for something new. That something new almost hit him in a grocery store parking lot, when another customer parked so close to him that he couldn’t open his door.


Initially, he wanted to make that person aware of his frustration, but quickly changed his mind when he saw that the driver was an older woman with a cargo of unfamiliar fruit.


He learned that they were hardy kiwis and a nutritious snack that the woman’s husband, who was experiencing health problems, loved to eat. Williams’ curiosity was piqued and, 13 years later, he has become something of a hardy kiwi evangelist who loves extolling their nutrition.


“Perhaps the healthiest thing you will eat all week, possibly all year!” his farm’s website proclaims.

The Michigan State kiwifruits are smooth with an oval shape and lime green color. They’re large for hardy kiwi, but weigh about half of the fuzzy kiwis sold in stores. Several fruits hang from a vine in front of yellow leaves.
Michigan State kiwi are hearty, delicious and nutritious. They also have no fuzz so you can eat them like grapes. Credit: Courtesy Robert Williams

Like their fuzzy, store-bought cousins, hardy kiwis are good sources of fiber, antioxidants and vitamins C and E. The Michigan State kiwi also has no fuzz — it looks like a big green grape — meaning you can eat it whole and not lose any nutrients through peeling.


“I’m probably marketing in the wrong direction. I blab on about nutrition, but what people really care about is what tastes good,” Williams said. “And when people taste the kiwi, the most common reaction is to say ‘wow’ and buy a basket.”


He also thinks marketing is a problem when it comes to why the kiwi variety isn’t grown more in Michigan. People simply don’t know about them, but they should.


“They’re exceptional, and they’re perfect for Michigan,” Williams said. “I don’t want to grow more kiwi. I’m not trying to make a bigger business out of this. I just want other people to find out about them.”


Although Williams had a wealth of knowledge about growing the vines and their fruit, he couldn’t say for sure how they got their Michigan State branding. Still, our conversation provided key details that lined up with some things we read on the internet, shining a light on which rabbit holes were most worth exploring.


That’s how we learned about an organization that might harbor the secrets we were after. For our next step, we needed to infiltrate NAFEX, the North American Fruit Explorers.


‘Hey, this is business’


This step was incredibly easy. We filled out a contact form on the organization’s website and its president, Kris Heeter, replied with a couple additional instructions.


After submitting one more form and paying a very reasonable membership fee, we gained access to a digitized and searchable archive of the group’s Pomona newsletter dating back to 1967. Within minutes, we had a written account backing up what Williams had told us about this fruit: It was delicious.


In the summer of 1994, David Kuchta of Nesquehoning, Pennsylvania, had written an article in Pomona about abandoning his plans to experiment with different ways of storing hardy kiwifruits.


“The few pounds of kiwis I put aside for myself, I ended up selling to my customers. People came to me and begged me for samples. I just couldn’t refuse them!” Kuchta wrote. “Before you knew it, they were all gone. My wife said to someone that she likes the large Michigan State kiwis best. I had to break the news to her that they were gone. She was really disappointed. Hey, this is business.”


It was another one of Kuchta’s articles from 1995 that helped break this case wide open.


“I felt the same excitement . . . of Dan Sorensen finding the ‘Michigan State’ hardy kiwi, the largest hardy kiwi yet found, growing at the university of the same name,” he wrote.


We now knew who christened the kiwi. After convincing Google we really weren’t looking for more information about the Daniel Sorensen who played defensive back in the National Football League, we found Sorensen’s website and email address.


Three hours after we reached out, he replied with his phone number and a message: “Give me a call anytime and we can chat.”

The origin story


When we called Sorensen, it felt like catching up with an old friend, even though we’d never met. Kiwi growing seems to attract a congenial sort of person.


Sorensen was in the process of moving to upstate New York when we spoke, but he was born and raised in Pennsylvania. He actually spent most of his life there, outside of stints in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and studying biology at Eastern Nazarene College in Massachusetts.


His career was in medical electronics, and he grew fruit as a hobby, but his credentials suggest it’s a hobby he takes seriously. He’s been a Penn State master gardener for nearly three decades. And his history with kiwis goes back further than that.


Michigan State University botanist William Gillis in 1968. Credit: Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections

“Years ago, when they started selling kiwis in grocery stores, I thought they were wonderful but found we couldn’t grow them here,” Sorensen said. “I learned about hardy kiwis in the ‘70s — I read that they tasted like ‘regular’ kiwis but sweeter — and started looking for them everywhere.”


Other than a few lackluster vine clippings he procured from Cleveland, Sorensen didn’t have much luck until the mid-‘80s. That’s when he learned about the MSU Herbarium.


He thought it would be a great place to study up on different hardy kiwis. A Michigan State botanist named William Gillis, best known for researching the flora of the Bahamas, also had added several hardy kiwi samples to the collection from his world travels during the 1960s and ‘70s.


In 1984, when Sorensen was visiting his in-laws in Owosso, Michigan, he decided to stop by the herbarium.


“The herbarium was down in the basement, and I was working down there when a professor came over, curious, and asked what I was up to,” Sorensen said. “I told him, and he said, ‘We’ve got some growing right outside the window here.’”


After we spoke, Sorensen dug up his notes from that day and found that professor was John Beaman, the MSU Herbarium’s curator at the time. Beaman was also a Fulbright Fellow, who led botanists’ efforts to catalog the plants living on Mount Kinabalu in Borneo.

“I wanted to make sure that they stayed alive and didn’t get lost.” - Dan Sorensen, Penn State master gardener and propagator of Michigan State kiwi

Beaman and his colleagues would show that this was one of the most biodiverse habitats on the planet, supporting more than 5,000 plant species. His work there helped earn him the Jose Cuatrecasas Medal from the Smithsonian Institution in 2003 and the 2004 Asa Gray Award from the American Society of Plant Taxonomists.


John Beaman, center, former curator of the Michigan State University Herbarium, accepts the Jose Cuatrecasas Medal from the Smithsonian Institution in 2003. Credit: Leslie Brothers/Smithsonian Institution

Nearly 20 years earlier, though, Beaman was introducing Sorensen to what would become the Michigan State kiwi — and it was growing out of a window well outside the herbarium.


“He told me they came from the Netherlands. I asked if they produced fruit and he said, ‘Yeah, they produce fruit. The students love it,’” Sorensen said. “But he didn’t have any other information.”


Sadly, both Gillis and Beaman have died — Gillis in 1979 and Beaman in 2015 — making direct follow up with either of them to collect their memories of the kiwi impossible. However, Beaman is still helping support the MSU Herbarium today through a memorial endowment that bears his name.


Back in the summer of ‘84, Beaman let Sorensen take as many kiwi vine clippings as he wanted. In addition to the Michigan State kiwi, there was another hardy kiwi growing in the window well, one known as golden kiwi.


The Pennsylvanian brought them home and planted them. Fairly quickly, he determined the golden kiwi wasn’t cut out for Pennsylvania’s climate. He said it would need about 200 frost-free days to bear fruit and he’d be lucky to get half that in a summer.


But the Michigan State vine looked promising.


Before it started bearing fruit, he shared his discovery with the NAFEX network through the Pomona newsletter.


“I have a very limited quantity of an apparently bisexual vine I call Michigan State. These are available, one to a customer for $15 postpaid,” Sorensen wrote in the winter of 1985.


But it turns out the vines he cut weren’t bisexual after all — they were female. When he returned to MSU two summers after his initial visit, a helpful Spartan told him he could find the males growing on tennis courts near the football stadium.


Unfortunately, today, those kiwi vines — and those courts — are gone.


The entirety of Spartan Stadium is visible in an aerial photograph taken in 1989. To the left of the football field — with MSU’s trademark block “S” at midfield and the word “State” written in each end zone — are tennis courts with cars parked on them.
In 1989, Michigan State University’s tennis courts (on the left side of the image) doubled as overflow parking for the stadium and an important component of Michigan State kiwi breeding. Credit: MSU Athletics

“I think the original Michigan State kiwi plants have all been ripped out,” Sorensen said. “But they’re a wonderful fruit. I’ve never had anyone taste one and say they didn’t like it.”


Although there are still tennis courts within shouting distance of the stadium, a call to MSU Athletics confirmed that those were built in the mid-‘90s. The courts in 1985 were even closer to the football field, standing where Lot 79 is now, nestled between the stadium and the STEM Teaching and Learning Facility.


Coincidentally, we learned that those lost courts also witnessed another type of history that’s currently being recognized. Stan Drobac, who coached the men’s tennis team from 1958 through 1989, was just named to the MSU Athletics Hall of Fame.


“Some of the stuff he did as coach, pushing for the team tennis championship and being one of the first to say there should be one, has really blossomed,” Drobac’s son, also named Stan, told MSU Athletics. “To see what that is today in the sport, it’s pretty cool.”


This fun fruit story was suddenly making us think about bigger ideas, about things like legacy and how what we plant here can keep growing, whether or not we’re around to see it.


“When from these scenes we wander and twilight shadows fade,” as our alma mater goes, what happens next?


Our search for the Michigan State kiwi had reached a somewhat bittersweet conclusion. The original vines that became the Michigan State kiwi were gone, but at least we had an answer, a story to remember and share. And the vines that bear Michigan State’s name are still bearing fruit elsewhere.


“That was actually one of the reasons I wanted to keep them. I wanted to make sure that they stayed alive and didn’t get lost,” Sorensen said. “It sounds like it may have worked.”

Epilogue! At the herbarium


“There’s something that’s been nagging me that makes me thinks this story isn’t quite over,” said Matt Chansler, the collection assistant at the MSU Herbarium, a few weeks after we visited him.


Matt Chansler of the Michigan State University Herbarium opened the collection to help MSUToday find answers about the Michigan State kiwi. Credit: Matt Davenport/MSU

We went partially to see how far we could retrace Sorensen’s steps, but more generally to travel back in time.


“That’s one thing these specimens let you do,” Chansler told us at the time. “Multiple people have put multiple lifetimes into this place.”


The MSU Herbarium feels a lot like a library. But rather than keeping books, it preserves knowledge in the form of leaves, stems, roots and flowers that have been carefully pressed and mounted to sheets carrying sample information: who collected it, when and from where.


For all the changes the university had seen over the past 40 years, the MSU Herbarium has been a sort of evolving constant. Its collection is ever-growing, but each specimen provides a sort of static snapshot of life at a given time, in a given spot, on an always-changing planet.


The collection provides a unique way to connect with natural and human history that so easily could be lost and forgotten. We knew the Michigan State kiwi was proof of that, but we didn’t appreciate how true that was until we went to the MSU Herbarium in person.


Chansler moved the racks to reveal the collection’s portfolio of samples from the kiwi family, or Actinidiaceae. Paging through the specimens, we saw an arctic kiwi, or Actinidia kolomikta; a golden kiwi, or Actinidia chinensis; and even an Actinidia arguta, the species that includes the Michigan State kiwi.


This was a different variety of the arguta, though — one native to Japan, where it was collected by Gillis in 1961 at the edge of Lake Shikotsu.


“Apparently this university had a thing for kiwis,” Chansler said.


He then took us outdoors to show us the famed window well, where he spotted two kiwi vines. One looked to be the golden kiwi we had just seen in the collection, which was likely the same one Sorensen saw and took clippings from back in the 1980s. The collection’s sample had come from the same window well decades earlier.


There are more than a dozen varieties of the species Actinidia arguta. This is one that isn’t the Michigan State kiwi but is a close genetic relative. Credit: Matt Davenport/MSU

Believing that the Michigan State kiwi was gone, it stood to reason the other vine was the arctic kiwi we had been told about at the beginning of our research, when Williams first contacted us.


But this is what had been nagging Chansler. Our untrained eyes had accepted this identification, but after our visit, Chansler kept thinking about it and thought it could be an Actinidia arguta.


He took a photo of the vine and sent it to an old friend and fellow MSU graduate, Dan Greiner. The two were also members of the Student Horticulture Association at MSU, and Chansler called Greiner the best gardener he knows.


As luck would have it, Greiner’s beautiful and acclaimed garden about 25 miles west of East Lansing in Mulliken, Michigan, is home to a Michigan State kiwi. Seeing the photo, Greiner agreed with Chansler’s assessment: The vine in the window well could be a Michigan State kiwi.


Unfortunately, the vine at MSU isn’t in the best condition for Chansler to confirm that suspicion.

Two photographs of kiwi vines side-by-side enables a comparison of the specimens. On the left, a close-up of the vine growing in shade from a window well outside the MSU Herbarium. On the right, a vine growing in full sun in the garden of Michigan State alum Dan Greiner. Both feature green leaves shaped like skinny footballs.
An unidentified kiwi vine growing in less-than-ideal settings from the window well outside the MSU Herbarium (left) bears similarities to a Michigan State kiwi growing in the Milliken, Michigan, garden of Dan Greiner (right). Left kiwi: Matt Chansler/MSU Herbarium/Right kiwi: Dan Greiner

“It would be really nice to get a piece of the plant by the window well, grow it up and see what the flowers and fruits are like,” Chansler said. “But I think it keeps getting whacked back and destroyed by deer, so there’s not much left to grow.”


While that was disappointing to hear, the more dominant emotion we felt was closer to gratitude.


We were grateful that, after all these years, there’s still possibly a Michigan State kiwi on campus. And, either way, we were grateful that the story survived — thanks to the MSU Herbarium, its staff, a visitor from 40 years ago and an alumnus.


A tiny Michigan State kiwi vine has taken root near campus. If all goes well, we might have fruit in three to four years. Credit: Matt Davenport/MSU

When we started this project, we had no idea what a Michigan State kiwi was. Now we know that two are still close to their namesake, not counting the unconfirmed vine in the window well.


One is in Greiner’s garden. The other we ordered from one of those nurseries we found online. That vine is now growing in one of our writer’s yards, close enough to campus to hear Spartans when they pack the stadium.


Coincidentally, it turns out that Williams was closer to more Michigan State kiwi than he realized out in Washington state. He’s got a crop of vines that are now mature enough to bear fruit and he discovered 35 of them had been mislabeled when he bought them.


They’re actually Michigan State kiwis, too, bringing his total number of Michigan State vines to 52. This prompted him to ask us another question that we can’t immediately answer.


“Does this make me the largest grower of Michigan State kiwis in the country?” he wrote, before signing off with “Go Green!”

By: Matt Davenport

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