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The hardy kiwi: scourge or savior for farmers?

The smooth-skinned hardy kiwi may never make it to a fruit salad near you. Fotolia

Imagine a delicious grape-size fruit with twice the vitamin C of an orange, twice the dietary fiber of an apple, and as much potassium as a banana. Plus, it grows easily — perhaps too easily — in Massachusetts.

This little-known fruit, called a “hardy kiwi,” is a cousin of the more famous fuzzy kiwi you can buy in the produce aisle of any supermarket.

But the smooth-skinned berry may never make it to a fruit salad near you.

State agricultural officials consider the plant, the product of a fast-growing vine brought from Japan to Massachusetts in 1877, an invasive menace, more like kudzu than kiwi. So they are moving to add it to the state’s prohibited plant list, which would make Massachusetts the first state to ban its sale and importation.

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The proposal has divided the gardening and horticultural community, sparking a bitter debate between critics and defenders of the hardy kiwi who are preparing to raise their pitchforks at a hearingTuesday.

“This is one of the most threatening invasive plant species we’ve seen in decades at Mass Audubon,” said Jack Clarke, the director of public policy and government relations at the venerable conservation society. “We’ve seen acres of mature forest just taken over by this stuff.”

But hardy kiwi devotees say the vine is being unfairly maligned.

“These berries have a huge amount of promise as a potential cold, hardy fruit crop in the Northeast,” said Will Hastings, a University of New Hampshire graduate student in agricultural sciences, who has been harvesting the hardy kiwi on a vineyard for two years, as part of a research project to prove its viability as a cash crop for New England farmers.

He extolled the little berry as a vitamin-rich wonder that can withstand the harshest winter weather.

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“On top of that, they’re just incredibly tasty,” he said. “If you like kiwi fruit, these just blow those out of the water. The fuzzies really pale in comparison once you’ve tried one of these.”

Defenders say any hope of turning the fruit into a local staple on par with the blueberry or cranberry will be crushed if Massachusetts adds the hardy kiwi to its prohibited plant list, alongside such ignominious species as itchgrass and Japanese knotweed.

Kiwi vines attached to trees in Kennedy Park in Lenox.Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game

“Most of these plants on the list nobody cares about, but some of them have commercial implications,” said Peter Del Tredici, senior research scientist emeritus at the Arnold Arboretum. “They’re going to kill this fledgling industry before it even has a chance.”

Such heated battles rarely make it beyond the confines of the Massachusetts Invasive Plant Advisory Group, but this one has taken on particular intensity because the hardy kiwi also has a rich local history.

Bob Guthrie, a volunteer scientist at the University of Minnesota Horticultural Research Center and hardy kiwi historian, said the seeds were first brought to the United States from Sapporo, Japan, by Colonel William S. Clark, a Civil War veteran who founded the Massachusetts Agricultural College in Amherst, which later became the University of Massachusetts.

During the Gilded Age, the creeping vine was prized for its ornamental value on the columns and trellises of grand estates in Lenox like the Hotel Aspinwall and Fernbook, the summer home of the artist Thomas Shields Clarke, Guthrie said.

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But the vine has grown well beyond its genteel roots. In recent years, it has strangled more than 100 acres of forest in Kennedy Park in Lenox, a popular hiking spot where town officials have spent $75,000 to remove tangled canopies of kiwi vines with herbicides and blades.

“It’s displacing and hurting the existing native species and habitat that make up a resilient and healthy forest system,” said Gwen Miller, Lenox’s land-use director.

Ripe kiwi berries hung from a vine at Kiwi Korners in Pennsylvania.Will Hastings

Tuesday’s hearing by the state Department of Agricultural Resources will weigh whether to ban the fruit, as recommended by the Invasive Plant Advisory Group, a panel of botanists, ecologists, and nursery industry officials that concluded in December that the fruit is “likely invasive.”

That damning judgment was based on several criteria, including the fact that it is not native to Massachusetts and has the ability to spread widely and rapidly and jump spatial gaps.

“I want people to understand it’s a science-based process,” said Jennifer Forman Orth, an environmental biologist at the department who acknowledged sampling a few of the juicy morsels at an advisory group meeting where members debated the fruit’s fate. “It’s not something we take lightly. There’s a lot of research done and a lot of discussion.”

Guthrie, who grows the hardy kiwi in Minnesota, strongly disputes the conclusion that the vine can jump spatial gaps and establish itself in new areas. He said the vines attacking Kennedy Park are merely remnants of those planted a century ago in Lenox’s Gilded Age estates.

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“They’re putting out misinformation and a miscarriage of justice,” he said.

Also worth considering, he said, is the fact that the berries are simply delicious. “They taste,” he said, “like Sweet Tarts candy.”


Michael Levenson can be reached at michael.levenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.