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Citrus, berries, exotic fruit and nuts

by  Sandy Scarrow

A wide range of fruit crops are grown in New Zealand. Subtropical plants such as citrus, avocados and persimmons grow in the warm north, while berries, olives and nuts are produced in more temperate regions.


Citrus

Citrus fruits have been grown in New Zealand since 1819, when the first oranges were planted at Kerikeri by the missionary settler Charlotte Kemp. By the middle of the 19th century, there were commercial citrus orchards in Northland and the Bay of Plenty. New Zealand’s climate, with its cool summers and cold winters, is marginal for most citrus, so they are usually grafted onto hardy rootstocks.

Citrus species originate from South-East Asia. They hybridise readily and there are numerous cultivated forms. The main species grown in New Zealand – mandarins (Citrus reticulata and C. unshiu), lemons (C. limon) and oranges (C. sinensis) – are evergreen trees.

New Zealand’s citrus industry is small, accounting for just 0.03% of the world’s citrus production. It covers some 2,000 hectares, with 400 orchards in Northland, Gisborne and the Bay of Plenty. In 2006, citrus fruit exports were worth more than NZ$4.5 million (including mandarins $1.6 million, lemons $2.5 million and oranges $385,000). An additional $700,000 worth of processed citrus products was exported. In 2006 New Zealand citrus growers were given access to the European Union and US markets, which they expect to be lucrative.

Mandarins

New Zealand grows both satsuma (C. unshiu) and clementine (C. reticulata) mandarins. Satsuma mandarins are harvested from mid-April (autumn) to late August (winter). The main export market is Japan. Encore – a summer-fruiting variety – is harvested for local consumption.

Lemons

Yen Ben is the lemon variety grown for export, mainly to Japan. In 2006, it was New Zealand’s main citrus export, surpassing mandarins (which had dominated citrus export for the previous 10 years). A smooth-skinned lemon with a thin rind, Yen Ben was introduced to New Zealand in the 1970s, and is harvested year-round.

Meyer lemons are popular with home gardeners, and grow in cool climates. They are hybrids, probably of a lemon and an orange. A small number are sent to Japan.

Oranges

Navel oranges are the main orange crop, grown primarily for fresh local consumption. Most are grown in Gisborne and harvested from June (winter) to October. A small number are exported: Korea took 23 tonnes in 2005 and 2006. Valencia oranges are also grown and processed into juice.

Tangelos

Seminole tangelos, a mandarin–grapefruit hybrid, were first grown in New Zealand in the 1950s. Initially popular with growers, tangelos were extensively planted in the 1960s. But they succumbed to a fungal disease, and plantings declined from 766 hectares in 1982 to 163 hectares in 2002.

New Zealand grapefruit

New Zealand’s climate is too cool for growing true grapefruit (Citrus paradisi). The fruit grown in New Zealand is variously called poorman’s orange, New Zealand grapefruit or goldfruit, and is a hybrid of unknown origins. Sir George Grey imported the parent plant to New Zealand in 1855, and it was propagated and planted around Auckland and Northland. Plant breeders selected high-producing strains of the original stock.

The Morrison’s seedless variety was popular for decades, but since the 1970s Golden Special has been the most common variety. There has been a steady decline in New Zealand grapefruit cultivation – from 510 hectares in 1982 to just 82 hectares in 2002, as growers changed to more commercial citrus crops.


Avocados and persimmons

Avocados

Avocados (Persea americana) fruit on large evergreen trees originating from Central America. Grown as a commercial crop in New Zealand since the 1970s, they require a frost-free climate. Northland and the Bay of Plenty are the main growing regions, with around 4,400 hectares in cultivation at June 2005. Hass, a Guatemalan-origin hybrid, is the main variety.

The good oil

New Zealand has been at the forefront of developing an avocado-oil industry, based on cold-press extraction. Oil is extracted from the flesh, and used for salads and cooking. With its high smoking point of 255°C, avocado oil is suitable for fast frying and wok cooking. It is also used in cosmetics and skincare products. The oil earned $2.1 million in exports in 2006.

As avocado trees are susceptible to phytophthora root rot, good drainage is essential. The light, free-draining volcanic soils of the Bay of Plenty are ideal. Northland’s heavier clay soils present challenges, although the climate is better.

The trees flower in spring between October and December, and the pear-shaped fruit develop on the tree for 9 to 15 months before harvest. Mature fruit ripen after they have been picked.

Avocado fruit averaged NZ$30 million annually in export earnings from 2001 to 2006. Ninety per cent of exports in 2006 were to Australia. Avocados are also widely consumed in New Zealand, and the local market was valued at $15.1 million in 2005.

Persimmons

Persimmons (Diospyrus kaki) are the fruit of deciduous trees that originate in China and have been cultivated for centuries in Japan. Although persimmons have been grown in New Zealand since 1873, they are a relatively new export crop. In 2006, they accounted for 195 hectares of commercial orchards.

The main export variety, Fuyu, a non-astringent persimmon, was first brought to New Zealand in the early 1980s. It needs long warm summers and is grown primarily in the Gisborne and Auckland regions. Persimmons are harvested from April (autumn) to mid-June (winter).

Persimmon pucker

When you bite on an unripe persimmon your mouth dries out and the fruit tastes bitter. This is caused by tannins in the fruit binding with proteins in your saliva. When the fruit ripens, the sourness disappears.

Persimmons grow well on soils with a slightly acid pH (6–6.5). If grown on clay they require good drainage. On lighter sandy soils they will not tolerate dryness, and need irrigation.

Persimmon exports are mainly to Asia, with smaller markets in Australia and Europe. Exports were worth $7.5 million in 2006.


Tamarillos, passionfruit and feijoas

Tamarillos

Tamarillos (Solanum betaceum, formerly Cyphomandra betacea) are native to the northern Andes of South America. The trees are small (3–4 metres high), evergreen, soft-stemmed and frost-sensitive.

The plant was introduced to New Zealand in 1891 by the Auckland nursery D. Hay & Sons. At first only yellow and purple fruiting varieties were grown. A red-fruited variety was bred at Māngere East in the 1920s, and small-scale commercial production started.

The fruit was strongly promoted in the 1960s and the industry prospered for a few years. The area under cultivation has increased slowly, from 130 hectares in 1970 to 270 hectares in 2002. Tamarillos are mainly grown in the Bay of Plenty, Northland and Auckland.

Spanglish

Although tamarillos are from South America, the name is not Spanish, but a New Zealand invention. The fruit was originally known as tree tomato, but to avoid confusion with the common tomato, and increase appeal to export customers, the New Zealand Tree Tomato Promotions Council decided to rename it. Council member W. Thompson came up with ‘tamarillo’, claiming it sounded both Māori and Spanish. The new name was officially adopted on 1 February 1967.

The tamarillo bears its first crop 18 months after planting and can be productive for seven to eight years. After that, productivity is usually limited by the build-up of viruses. The fruit is harvested from April (autumn) to October (spring). Tamarillos prefer light, well-drained soils with a pH range of 5.8–6.5.

Tamarillos have a distinctive tart flavour. The red tamarillo has a high acid content and cannot be canned.

Tamarillos are not a common commercial crop around the world, but earned on average NZ$700,000 in annual exports over the five years to June 2006. In 2004 the domestic market was valued at $1.4 million.

Passionfruit

Black passionfruit vines (Passiflora edulis) are fast-growing, frost-tender climbers, originating from the tropical highlands of Brazil. They were first commercially planted in New Zealand at Kerikeri in 1927, and passionfruit production is now concentrated in Northland, Taranaki and the Bay of Plenty, over an area of 66 hectares.

Forbidden fruit

Banana passionfruit (Passiflora mollissima and P. mixta), grown in New Zealand home gardens since the 1870s, have been declared unwanted organisms. They produce sweet, banana-shaped yellow fruit – but they are escape artists. Birds, possums and humans have spread the seeds into forest and regenerating scrub, where the vigorous vines overtop and smother native plants.

The vines are grown on an A-frame trellis or pergola. They start bearing 18 months after planting and are commercially productive for four to six years. Their purple fruit is harvested over the summer and autumn, from February to May. Passionfruit prefer light sandy soils and good drainage. They do not grow well in clay soils.

Passionfruit exports were valued at $700,000 in 2006.

Feijoas

Feijoas (Acca sellowiana) grow on small evergreen trees, native to south-eastern Brazil and Uruguay. The trees are frost-hardy, but fruit best in temperate and subtropical climates. Plants were originally introduced into New Zealand in the early 1900s as ornamental shrubs. Because they withstood coastal winds they were often planted as low shelter belts.

Pioneer plant-breeder Hayward Wright started importing and breeding different varieties of feijoa between 1929 and the early 1950s, and these formed the basis of the industry. In the late 1970s, government scientists built on this pioneering work with an enhanced selection and breeding programme for self-fertility and fruit quality. Cultivars from this programme – Apollo and Gemini – are the main varieties grown in orchards.

By 2002, feijoa cultivation covered 198 hectares, spread over 200 orchards throughout the North Island. Feijoa trees have a productive life of 30–40 years. Most varieties require a pollinator plant, although some are self-fertile. Feijoas grow well on a wide range of soils, but do require good drainage.

The domestic market for feijoas was worth $1.7 million in 2004, and exports earned $100,000 in 2006.

In the home garden, fruit is gathered after it falls from the tree, but for commercial sale it is touch-picked – the fruit is gently pulled, and detaches from its stalk if mature. Fallen fruit is used for processing. The harvest period is in autumn (March to May).


Blueberries, strawberries and blackcurrants

Blueberries

The Department of Agriculture introduced blueberries (Vaccinium species) in 1950 to provide a suitable crop on the acid peatlands of Waikato. This area remains the centre of blueberry production, with 341 hectares in cultivation in 2002. In 2006 blueberries were New Zealand’s most valuable export berry crop, worth NZ$12.5 million in fresh exports and $1.4 million as frozen fruit.

Blueberries require a well-drained acid soil with a pH of 4.0 to 5.5. Two kinds (highbush and rabbit-eye) are grown in New Zealand. Both have a productive life of 20–30 years.

Highbush blueberries (V. corymbosum and V. australe) originate in the north-eastern US, and produce early-season fruit. They are woody deciduous shrubs which may grow to 6 metres high. Harvest is from mid-November to mid-February (summer). Highbush blueberries are self-fertile, but need winter chilling to produce a good crop.

Rabbit-eye blueberries (V. ashei) grow naturally in the warmer regions of the south-eastern US. They produce late-season fruit, harvested from January (summer) to mid-April (autumn). These evergreen plants are not self-fertile, and need a pollinator plant nearby. They need less winter chilling than highbush species.

Strawberries

Strawberries (Fragaria x ananassa) are mostly grown for domestic consumption. About 6,500 tonnes are produced by 125 growers, and were worth $24 million in 2005. Fresh strawberry exports earned $3.9 million in 2006.

Originating from crosses of North and South American species, strawberries are small evergreen herbaceous plants. They fruit well for up to four years, but are grown commercially as an annual crop.

Strawberries grow well on a range of soils, from clay to sandy loam with a pH range of 5.5–6.5. They are planted on raised soil beds covered with black polythene. The plants are prone to infection by soil-borne diseases, and for many years growers fumigated the soil with methyl bromide – but in 2007, this substance was phased out.

New Zealand’s commercial strawberry fields cover a total of 170 hectares, mainly in the Auckland region. The fruit are harvested from spring to the end of summer, depending on the varieties.

Blackcurrants

Blackcurrants (Ribes nigrum) are cold-climate deciduous shrubs, which originated in central and northern Europe and northern Asia. Outside Europe, New Zealand is the largest producer of blackcurrants, accounting for 3% of the world supply.

C-minus

When students Anna Devathasan and Jenny Suo measured the vitamin C content of their Ribena blackcurrant drink for a school project, they found only a trace – despite the advertising slogan ‘The blackcurrants in Ribena have four times the vitamin C of oranges’. The Commerce Commission confirmed the findings, and in 2007 manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline was prosecuted and fined more than $200,000.

In New Zealand most of the crop is grown in the Canterbury–North Otago area (1,000 hectares) and Nelson (400 hectares). The fruit ripens in December and January (summer) and is harvested by machine.

Blackcurrants prefer deep, fertile soils with a slightly acid pH, around 6.0–6.5. They have a productive lifespan of 15–20 years. The main variety grown is Ben Ard, a New Zealand-bred cultivar. Blackcurrants have more anthocyanin (a soluble pigment and antioxidant) than most other fruits, and have been promoted for their health benefits.

Domestic sales of fresh blackcurrants were worth $1.7 million in 2004. In 2006, export of frozen blackcurrant concentrate was valued at $9.8 million, and frozen fruit at $1 million. Much of the crop is exported to Malaysia as frozen concentrate, where it is made into the fruit drink Ribena.


Boysenberries and raspberries

Boysenberries

Boysenberries (Rubus hybrid) grow on a type of bramble. They are of hybrid origin, although their exact parentage is unknown. Boysenberries were introduced to New Zealand from Knott’s Berry Farm, California, in the mid-1930s.

They are deciduous plants. Canes grow during the first summer and fruit in the second, after which they are pruned out. Boysenberry canes have a rambling growth form, and require support.

The plant produces large, flavoursome purple–black fruit, suitable for freezing, canning and jam-making. The harvest period is in summer – two to three weeks at the end of December and beginning of January. Unlike other Rubus species (which include raspberries and blackberries), they do not require winter chilling. They need deep loam soils with a pH range of 5.8–6.3. Just over 60% (151 hectares) of New Zealand’s boysenberry crop is grown in the Tasman district in the northern South Island. A further 20% (56 hectares) is grown in the North Island, in Waikato, the Bay of Plenty and Hawke’s Bay.

Early plantings succumbed to downy mildew fungus, but cultivation increased when fungicide sprays became available. In the 1980s over 600 hectares were planted, but this had dropped to about 240 hectares by 2002. During the 1980s and 1990s much of the crop became infected with a disease – boysenberry decline – that stops fruit forming.

New Zealand’s frozen export boysenberry trade was valued at NZ$4.8 million in 2006.

Red raspberries

Red raspberries (Rubus idaeus) have been grown in New Zealand since early European settlement.

They have always been in demand for jam-making and are a popular fresh dessert fruit at Christmas. However, their cultivation in New Zealand has been a story of boom and bust.

In the early 1900s there were many raspberry growers, with over 100 around Nelson. The annual crop at the time was estimated at just over 1,000 tonnes. Production declined during the 1930s depression, and slowly recovered until 1970. Then many plants became infected with raspberry bush dwarf virus, which had been inadvertently introduced with an imported cultivar. The virus spread from plant to plant during pollination and caused leaf-yellowing and crumbly fruit.

The industry recovered during the 1980s and peaked in 1985, with 550 hectares in cultivation and 2,600 tonnes produced. At this time raspberries were New Zealand’s fifth most valuable fresh export, with Australia the main market. But in 1988 Australia stopped accepting New Zealand’s fresh raspberries as they were infected with raspberry bud moth (Heterocrossa rubophaga) – a pest insect, endemic to New Zealand.

The industry has declined since that time and by 2006 was based around 60 growers on 200 hectares. This is not enough to satisfy the domestic market, and since 1995 New Zealand has imported the berries, mainly from Chile.


Nuts and olives

Nuts and olives have been successfully grown in New Zealand since the earliest days of European settlement, but a concerted attempt to establish nut and olive industries only began in the 1980s.

Walnuts

Walnuts (Juglans regia) grow on large deciduous trees from Central Asia, which reach a height of 25–35 metres and have a productive lifespan of over 50 years. In New Zealand they grow best in a dry climate, on well-drained soils.

Local production is low – most walnuts eaten in New Zealand are imported. After growing trials in the 1980s, two high-performing varieties, Rex and Meyric, were selected as the basis of a fledgling industry. In 2002, 479 hectares were planted in walnuts – mainly in Canterbury.

Macadamias

Macadamia trees (Macadamia integrifolia, M. tetraphylla) are tall, evergreen and native to the rainforests of eastern Australia. They were first grown in New Zealand around 1932, at Kerikeri. Both species grow well in coastal regions in the upper North Island, and a hybrid cultivar, Beaumont, is grown commercially. Most orchards are in Northland and Auckland. In winter the crop is picked by hand or harvested mechanically from the ground.

Chestnuts

Four chestnut (Castanea) species are grown worldwide for their nuts. Chestnuts are medium-to-large deciduous trees, native to the northern hemisphere. Their nuts are produced inside a prickly seed case known as a burr.

In New Zealand most of the commercial plantings are grafted hybrid cultivars of the Japanese chestnut (C. crenata) and the English chestnut (C. sativa). They grow well on free-draining soils throughout New Zealand. Most chestnuts are grown around Auckland, but they are also a popular crop in the Waikato and Canterbury.

Olives

The olive (Olea europaea) is a hardy evergreen tree originating in the Mediterranean. Olives have been grown in the upper North Island since at least 1835. Although there were various attempts to establish an olive industry, nothing developed until the late 1980s. There were three reasons for this:

  • Until the 1980s, most New Zealanders were unfamiliar with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine and culture.
  • The varieties grown gave low yields and were not suitable for extracting oil.
  • Imported olive oil and table olives were cheap.

Commercial olive-growing began in Blenheim when Gidon Blumenfeld imported new cultivars from Israel in the late 1980s. The Ponder Estate planted a grove of the new imports, especially the Barnea cultivar. In the 1990s, oil from the Blenheim olives received an extra-virgin rating – the highest standard. Once it was known that New Zealand could produce high-quality olive oil, interest in growing olives blossomed. By 2006 1 million olive trees had been planted over 2,600 hectares, evenly split between the North and South islands.

Olives in the park

John Logan Campbell, a founding father of Auckland, tried to start an olive industry in the 1870s and 1880s, importing seedlings from South Australia. Although the trees grew well, their yield was low and the oil’s flavour disappointing. Later, Campbell gifted some of his land to the nation. In 2007 this area, now called Cornwall Park, still contained several large olive trees from the original plantings.

Olive trees are productive for over 100 years. They grow in a wide range of soils and thrive in soils with a pH of up to 8.5. Harvest in New Zealand is from April to June.

In 2004 the domestic oil market was worth $2.3 million and exports $600,000.


External links and sources

More suggestions and sources


How to cite this page: Sandy Scarrow, 'Citrus, berries, exotic fruit and nuts', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/citrus-berries-exotic-fruit-and-nuts/print (accessed 14 November 2019)

Story by Sandy Scarrow, published 24 Nov 2008