The people’s fruit
Feijoas have become a New Zealand emblem. So how did they end up in Aotearoa, and how did we end up adoring them—to the point of obsession, for some—when feijoas have not really caught on anywhere else?
It’s April again. Every few days, I take my daughters on a treasure hunt. In the centre of Raglan there’s an enormous feijoa tree. A bounty of ripe feijoas, like green Easter eggs, carpet the ground beneath. My four-year-old climbs high into the branches and sends more raining down. The little one proudly throws fruit after fruit into the shopping bag. When we get home, we eat them by the dozen, and the kids always want more. At night, when I cuddle them to sleep, I can still smell the sticky-sweet scent on their skin.
These free green gifts, the abundance, the breath of autumn in the air… it’s just like I remember from my childhood. Yet this year’s feijoa season is unlike any other. These little missions are one of the only things that take us off our property. The streets of our village are dead quiet. And when I bake feijoa muffins, I can’t invite the neighbours over to share them.
COVID-19 arrived in New Zealand in late January and spread as the feijoas were swelling. When the fruit began to drop, so did the government announcements—a new restriction each day, until by the end of March the country was in lockdown. Surplus feijoas could not be brought by the bagful into offices and staffrooms and schools and daycares.
Instead, social media filled with pictures of the baking and preserving people were doing with their feijoas and their newfound free time. British writer Neil Gaiman, quarantined in Hawke’s Bay, begged for assistance online: “The sheer quantity of Feijoa here is defeating us.”
The hundreds of responses he received illustrate the passion the fruit inspires in New Zealanders, and the special place it holds in our culture.
“When you have eaten as many as you can safely hold, they also make excellent ammunition for backyard warfare,” advised theoretical cosmologist Richard Easther, a professor at the University of Auckland. “Might be harder during a lockdown, but they are nature’s own organic Nerf guns.”
Software developer Nat Torkington advocated giving “the people’s fruit” to neighbours without trees, as a form of socialist redistribution.
One person admitted, “I may be the only person I know who doesn’t like feijoas.” Another lamented, “I have no tree this breaks my heart”, while most responded with something along the lines of: “You eat all of it. Or you drop it off on my doorstep.”
While people’s backyard feijoa trees offered solace in the time of COVID-19, the timing of the lockdown—right at the onset of the harvest—was a massive blow for commercial feijoa growers.
Many growers supply independent fruit shops and farmers’ markets, which were deemed non-essential and forced to close during Alert Level 4 of the lockdown. Lower-quality fruit and windfall are normally sent for processing into ice creams, yoghurts and juice, but some processing facilities were shut, too.
Grower Frans de Jong of Southern Belle Orchard near Matamata told me that the reduction in air travel meant the cost of freighting a tray of feijoas across the Tasman tripled, making it uneconomic to export. Growers could still sell to supermarkets—but, with such an oversupply, the big retailers could name their price.
Heather Smith, of Heather’s Feijoas in Hawke’s Bay, sent some of the fruit she’d usually sell at the local market to the Chatham Islands.
For Roger Matthews, president of the New Zealand Feijoa Growers Association, this was supposed to be his first big season. But in May, as a result of all the processing and supply disruptions, he found himself with 200 kilograms of feijoas to get rid of. He loaded them onto a trailer and dropped them around to his neighbour’s pigs.
I never imagined a global pandemic would become part of a story about the humble feijoa—but over the past four years, as I’ve followed my feijoa obsession around the world for a book I’m writing, I’ve stumbled upon so many strange and wonderful connections.
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe,” wrote pioneering Scottish-American conservationist John Muir, whose activism helped to create Yosemite National Park in the United States. In 1911, Muir travelled among feijoa trees in southern Brazil, though he was more interested in the ancient araucaria trees that towered above them.
Last year, I, too, visited those araucaria forests, but I went to learn about the feijoa’s origins. Feijoas are native to a swathe of Brazil’s southern highlands and the north of Uruguay, as well as some tiny pockets of Argentina and possibly Paraguay. In Santa Catarina, Brazil, I visited an archaeological site where the remains of thousand-year-old pit houses were surrounded by araucarias, feijoas and other related fruiting trees. Archaeologists believe the people who lived there, the Southern Jê, were probably the first humans to eat feijoas, some time after people arrived in the area about 4500 years ago.
Nearby, I visited a community of Afro-Brazilians, descendants of freed slaves who for five generations have used a tea made of feijoa leaves to treat a wide range of ailments.
In Colombia—where feijoas are not native, and fruit and flower all year round because the tropical lack of seasons confuses them—I was a celebrity guest at the 32nd annual Festival de la Feijoa in Tibasosa, a small Andean town. The walls of Tibasosa’s public buildings are painted with murals featuring women holding plates of feijoas. (In Colombia, people eat the fruit whole, citing health benefits, so breeders have selected varieties with thinner, sweeter skins.) Feijoa milkshakes, ice blocks and seedlings are sold on every corner of the grand colonial main square.
In Berlin, I traced the story of how feijoa specimens were first collected in the 1820s by German naturalist Friedrich Sellow as he roamed Brazil and Uruguay on the back of a mule, and how botanists claimed and named the plant for science: Feijoa sellowiana, after Sellow and a Brazilian naturalist called João da Silva Feijó (who had taken that name as a student to signal his admiration for the Spanish philosopher—and proto-feminist—Benito Jerónimo Feijóo).
Near Cannes, on the French Riviera, I went looking for the spot where feijoas were first grown in Europe, and rediscovered the lost acclimatisation garden of landscape gardener Édouard André, who had collected feijoa seeds in Uruguay in 1890 and brought them home with him. After André introduced feijoas to the world, in an 1898 article in the Revue Horticole entitled “A new fruit”, feijoas were planted in the Crimea, California and Colombia. They became popular in Azerbaijan and Georgia. And André’s article was also carried in the New Zealand Herald, in between an announcement for a sheep-dog trial and an advertorial for soap that supposedly cured “scalp humours”.
But the story of who first brought the feijoa to Aotearoa’s shores is hazy. One account claims they were imported from Australia in about 1908 by an unnamed Auckland nurseryman; another gives the credit to Alexander Allison of Whanganui. Allison’s property outside the city still boasts an enormous feijoa tree that could easily be more than a century old, so it seems likely he was among the first to cultivate them.
Either way, feijoas weren’t widely grown in New Zealand until the 1920s, when the grumpy horticultural genius Hayward Wright started selecting and propagating feijoas at his nursery in Avondale, Auckland, and advertising them in his plant catalogues and in the press. Wright was also responsible for developing the kiwifruit cultivar that became the basis of the New Zealand industry.
In a New Zealand Herald column in 1934, entitled “A valuable fruit”, Wright gushed about the feijoa. “Its fruit… is destined to become one of the very best for jams or jellies. It has a flavour quite its own, which can only be described as delicious.”
Why has the feijoa become such a loved, unofficial symbol of Aotearoa, despite hailing from half a world away? I call Carolyn Morris, an anthropologist specialising in food and agriculture at Massey University, hoping she will help me to understand what our national obsession with the feijoa says about us.
She tells me studies have repeatedly found that our sense of taste is largely social and cultural.
It’s not our genes that determine which foods we like, but what we’re exposed to when we’re young, what has meaning for us, and what gives us identity.
Objectively, feijoas aren’t that great, reckons Morris. “They’re sort of grey and grainy, and their texture’s kind of a bit weird—gloopy plus grainy—and they’re not a gorgeous colour.”
I’m a bit offended on the feijoa’s behalf, but feel encouraged when she extends the same disdain to whitebait. It’s less about flavour, she says, and more about how you get the fruit. Either you’ve grown them yourself, or someone’s given them to you, and so feijoas symbolise care.
As Morris and I talk, we identify four unique characteristics of the feijoa’s biology—features that evolved in a South American forest 23 million years ago, and which give the fruit its special meaning in contemporary New Zealand.
Firstly, there’s what Morris calls “the glut”—the spectacular abundance that lasts just a few short weeks, with the fruit thrown at our feet, onto driveways and under lawnmowers. Secondly, there’s its seasonality, tying our memories of eating feijoas to a particular time of year—the bittersweet end of summer, a time when not many other trees are fruiting. Thirdly, there’s the fact feijoas don’t keep well. The feijoa’s short shelf life, while partly explaining its lack of global commercial success, is also part of what gives the fruit meaning. If you can’t keep up with the amount of fruit a tree’s producing, and you can’t store the fruit for later, what do you do? You give it away, so it doesn’t go to waste. If feijoas weren’t so perishable, we might keep them for ourselves. Instead, we share them at work or put a box out on the street. If feijoas fall from a neighbour’s tree onto a driveway or footpath, it’s okay to help yourself.
“No one’s going to come out and shout at you, because there are millions on their own side of the fence,” says Morris. “They’re just like, ‘Take them away. They’re wasp factories out the front of my property.’ Whereas with other things, it’s like, ‘Touch my passionfruit and I’ll set the dog on you’.”
Finally, feijoa trees thrive with very little care in most New Zealand climates—some varieties are even known to produce in Southland—which makes them egalitarian. You don’t need specialist gardening knowledge or time to look after them. All you need is a patch of soil behind the washing line.
“It’s the prole fruit—it’s a really common kind of thing,” says Morris. “You don’t get any ‘Ooh, you have a feijoa’ kind of cred. It’s not fancy at all. It’s very much a home fruit.”
When the feijoa arrived in New Zealand, it was wild. Unlike apples, maize, wheat or kūmara, it had not yet been irrevocably altered by thousands of years of intimate encounters with human desires—the process we call domestication.
New Zealanders were among the first to tame it. Grown from seed, feijoas are highly variable, meaning a tree is unlikely to share the same characteristics as its parent. Over the past century, gardeners and plant breeders have been cross-pollinating sought-after feijoa trees. The best of the offspring—the ones with the largest, sweetest or most abundant fruit—were propagated (cloned) and given names. These clones became what are called cultivars, or “cultivated varieties”.
Those early breeders didn’t leave much of a paper trail. Ross Ferguson, honorary fellow at Plant & Food Research, followed their faint tracks in a 1983 journal article. Some time before 1920, Hayward Wright imported feijoa seeds from the El Saff Botanic Garden in Cairo, Egypt, and later a handful of feijoa cultivars from Australia. By 1930, he had created one of his own, and called it Magnifica. Two more followed: Mammoth and Triumph, still among the most popular cultivars today.
That was just the beginning. Now, there are more than 20 New Zealand varieties, chosen for their ability to thrive here, at these latitudes, in this climate. But there are a handful of feijoa breeders around the country who still don’t think we’ve quite cracked it. They believe a more perfect feijoa is out there, hiding in the plant’s genetics, just waiting to be found.
For Nigel Ritson, it all started when his life fell apart. His marriage collapsed, he was left caring for his two little boys, and he couldn’t afford the mortgage on his Wellington house. So he sold the house, quit his job, and moved to a cheap block of land in Takaka.
The land was pakihi, a type of heathland with very infertile soil. Only feijoas or apricots were worth growing. One day, he was trying to drown his grief by building a canoe, and to keep his young sons busy he filled a bucket with the feijoas that had fallen on the lawn. Five minutes later, the boys had eaten the lot. “That really tells you something, doesn’t it? Could you eat a bucket of apples? A bucket of bananas? I thought, ‘This is quite something’.”
So, he planted feijoas. At first, he joined forces with an experienced breeder, Roy Hart, who provided 600 seedlings. (They have since parted ways, and Hart, now in his 80s, is still breeding new varieties for Waimea Nurseries near Nelson.) That was 30 years ago, and since then, Ritson has been crossing and planting feijoas, analysing and scoring their qualities—and ripping them out again when they don’t meet his exacting standards.
At times, though, he has felt torn, sure that there are plants among those he is culling that have important pharmacological properties. “It’s just a conviction that grew in me. Maybe because I’m a person of faith, so I think everything has a purpose. I became absolutely convinced that there was some benefit in them.”
There was one particular tree, with fruit that had a “barely tolerable” flavour, that Ritson sensed was potent. “Don’t ask me how. I just knew. I’d walk past this plant and I’d say to myself, ‘This is a mean jungle plant’.”
Ritson contacted Rob Keyzers, a natural products chemist at Victoria University of Wellington, asking if he would be interested in testing the antifungal and antibacterial properties of feijoas. Keyzers’ research focuses on finding molecules in nature that could be useful and, though he personally hates the taste of feijoas, he and his team tested fruit from 16 cultivars: a handful of the most popular commercial varieties and some of Ritson’s personal favourites.
The scientists found feijoas had antifungal powers, but that there was huge variation between the individual varieties. The most potent of all? Ritson’s mean jungle plant. It contained large amounts of a compound that kills Candida species (the fungi responsible for thrush and athlete’s foot) without damaging human cells or helpful gut bacteria. The compound, however, is already known to science, meaning there’s no money in it.
Scientists have so far identified four methods for attacking fungi that don’t have negative side effects, and researchers are on the hunt for a new mechanism. The feijoa’s compound kills fungi using one of the known methods.
“The next billion-dollar thing has to work by a new mechanism, because the fungi are already evolving ways to overcome that mechanism,” says Keyzers. “You need to hit them with a new mechanism that they haven’t seen before.”
Ritson is still hopeful he’ll find the holy grail—a feijoa that is delicious, decent-sized, abundant, pharmacologically useful, resistant to fungal attack, and with a much longer shelf life than current varieties. He sees it almost as a divine mission, a beautiful legacy to leave the world.
Come feijoa season, he’s out in the orchard every day, collecting fruit to assess against his five-point scoring system. (A zero: “You have to wash your mouth out.” One is “bad, but you can hold it in your mouth” and two “edible, but like white bread with no jam or peanut butter”. Three is good, four very good, five is delicious.)
Ritson is fussy, having tasted tens of thousands of fruit. Some days, he marks “cull” beside every plant and contemplates giving up. But then there are the days when he tastes his usual quarter-teaspoon, then finds himself eating the entire thing. “I’ve tasted fruit that you’d just think were made in heaven. They’re just beyond description… It’s like the world turns over.” And the motivation to find that perfect feijoa comes flooding back.
On the southern arm of Auckland’s Manukau Harbour, hundreds of feijoa trees grow in neat rows. It looks peaceful, but the air above the orchard is throbbing with silent, invisible conversation. The trees are releasing a potpourri of complex chemical compounds as they transpire and photosynthesise, and some insects are listening in.
A female guava moth flaps above the orchard on soft dun wings. When the smell of feijoa wafts across her antennae, she knows that she’ll find a place to lay her eggs in the trees below. She lands, and sends out her own message: a stream of pheromones telling male guava moths where to find her.
The male moth’s antennae are covered in long hairs studded with pheromone receptor cells. When he picks up the female’s scent, he flies through the chemical column until he can’t detect her any more, then turns back, zig-zagging through the air until he reaches her. They mate, and she lays her fertilised eggs on the surface of a ripening feijoa fruit. The eggs hatch into caterpillars, which burrow into the fruit, leaving just a tiny mark on the skin, but turning the fruit’s flesh into a disgusting mass of holes and frass (caterpillar poo).
Guava moths arrived at Alison Haslip’s thriving Clarks Beach orchard two years ago. Infection was swift. Last year, around 80 per cent of the crop was unfit to sell. “The cows had a lovely time,” Haslip tells me wryly.
The pests turned up in New Zealand’s Far North about 20 years ago, probably blown over in a storm from their native Australia. They’ve been working their way south ever since, to Auckland, northern Waikato and the Coromandel. They thrive on feijoas, but also like macadamias, loquats, plums, guavas and citrus.
For the past three years, a team from Plant & Food Research, led by entomologist Asha Chhagan, has been trying to come up with a way to stop the guava moth. “It’s been one of the most challenging pests I’ve ever dealt with,” she says.
First, her team looked for any natural enemies that might already be preying on the guava moth in New Zealand. There weren’t any. They investigated common insecticides—but guava-moth caterpillars spend most of their life hidden inside the fruit, safe from sprays.
They spent two years trying to rear a colony of guava moths in the lab, so they could test ways of killing the eggs, but they couldn’t convince the moths to get jiggy in captivity.
Now, Chhagan’s team is trying different ways of disrupting the invisible conversations between plant and pest, males and females, one tree and another. To really have an impact you need to kill the females, or stop the males from finding them. Plant & Food Research chemist Andrew Twidle has been experimenting with ways to do both of those things.
Feijoas give off between 50 and 100 chemical compounds. Twidle used a machine called a gas chromatograph to separate the scents produced by the feijoa and by the guava moth’s natural host tree in Australia, the magenta lilly pilly. He found some compounds that were common to both.
To figure out which of those scents appeal to the moths, Twidle anaesthetises a female moth with carbon dioxide, slices off an antenna, and attaches it with electrodes to a computer. This zombie antenna stays alive for up to an hour—long enough for Twidle to puff the different chemical compounds over it and measure the antenna’s response. The computer records an electrical spike when it’s a compound the female moth can detect.
Last summer, the team tried out his methods in two Auckland orchards—one of which was Alison Haslip’s. I meet research associate Sophie Hunt there in February, on a hot, humid late-summer day. The estuary glitters through the windbreak as Hunt loads up a small green trolley with equipment: most importantly, a bag that Twidle sent up this morning by courier from Canterbury.
Ripening feijoas hang on the trees as Hunt walks down the orchard row dragging the trolley. She retrieves a green triangle trap and removes the sticky base that holds last week’s lure. There are a few beetles and a stray spider, but no moths.
Opening the courier bag, she takes out one of Twidle’s latest lures—synthesised versions of three compounds, at stronger concentrations than they tried last week. “Hopefully now it’s going to be like yelling at them, where before it was like whispering,” says Hunt, pressing the vial onto a fresh sticky trap. I’m surprised to find that I can smell it, too. “As if it was a feijoa lolly,” says Hunt.
I’d be attracted to that trap, but unfortunately the female guava moths aren’t. The day I visit, we catch one. The most the scientists have caught in the same trap is two.
To Twidle, that’s hopeful. “We now know what’s being said by the plant, and we know the insect’s receiving some of those compounds—but are there short-range cues we’re missing? Is there something else going on?”
So far, then, the moths are winning. “They are! I hate to admit it,” says Chhagan.
What will that mean for feijoas? Growers with badly infested orchards won’t be able to sell as much fruit, and will have to put more work into sorting it. The small feijoa industry doesn’t have the money for research that apple and kiwifruit growers have. And some feijoa growers in Northland are already battling another disease, caused by the fungal infection anthracnose, the subject of another Plant & Food Research effort.
Guava moths could change things for the rest of us, too. Already, I have friends who won’t plant feijoa trees again, because the moths ruin every fruit. “It could be the end of the glut, when they are free and freely given,” says anthropologist Carolyn Morris. “If it’s filled with worms, you don’t take it into work.
“That little moth has the potential to destroy the egalitarian-ness of this fruit, if it’s no longer available for people to share. The feijoa could disappear from the ways in which they’re exchanged at the moment.”
Originating in South America, named after a German who died in Brazil and a Brazilian who changed his name in honour of a Spaniard, channelled from Uruguay through France, Egypt and Australia to New Zealand, where the flowers are pollinated by British birds—the blackbird and the thrush—feijoas have just as complicated a history as most of us do. That’s something that chef Peter Gordon knows a bit about.
Of Māori and Scottish descent, Gordon is sometimes described as “the father of fusion cuisine”, but points out that he’s far from the first to combine flavours from distant continents. “My whole thing is that, without this transportation and acceptance of foreign ingredients, the British wouldn’t have potatoes or tea, the Italians wouldn’t have polenta or basil, and the Thais wouldn’t have peanuts and coriander and chilli.”
When I call him, he’s in self-isolation in Auckland, having just returned to New Zealand for good after 31 years in London. Last July, he sold his award-winning restaurant The Providores, where he occasionally served feijoa panna cotta. “You’d be saying to non-Kiwis in the kitchen, ‘Oh my God, wait until you taste feijoas. They’re the most amazing fruit!’ But they didn’t quite get the fervour that we had.”
New Zealand expats, on the other hand, would go mad for them.
One of Gordon’s favourite things to make is roasted feijoa chutney flavoured with mānuka twigs, inspired by a story his grandmother told about his gold-mining Pākehā ancestors, who apparently survived by boiling river stones with mānuka branches to make tea.
Gordon grew up in Whanganui in the 1960s, and feijoas still summon up his childhood. “They remind me of sunshine, and of cold days when they’ve been stewed with cinnamon and served with custard. It’s the memory of summer turning into autumn. I can picture eating them with your swimming togs on and then putting your trousers on.
“To me they’re like the quintessential New Zealand fruit, really, even though they’re not native.”
Five years ago, I held a feijoa in my hand and decided to look a little closer, to see what stories might be hiding beneath that smooth green skin. Inside were worlds I never expected to find. Perhaps that’s what happens if you look closely enough at anything—when you tug on any of nature’s threads. But I like to think there is something special about
I often find myself torn between two competing impulses that I’ve termed “the wild” and “the hearth”. The wild is the call to adventure, newness, travel and challenge, while the hearth is the desire for security, family, consistency and home. Somehow, for me, the feijoa symbolises both. It’s deeply local, one of us, a home fruit I eat with my kids. It conjures up my childhood—yet it evolved among toucans and sabre-toothed cats in subtropical Brazil. To reach us, it crossed oceans. It is facing fungal and insect threats. And its chemical essences may help solve the problems of the future.
My book isn’t finished—I’ve still got a few threads to unravel—but this little fruit has already taught me so much about the many ways plants are entwined with our human lives. I’m even more obsessed than when I started.
Kate Evans is writing a book about the history of feijoas. For updates, and further details, visit her website.