James and Barbara Just didn’t expect a casual kiwifruit picking job would lead to debunking a long-held family myth or uncover the even more intriguing story of an ancestor’s legacy to the New Zealand kiwifruit industry.
The retired couple from Wellsford arrived at Graham and Mavis Dyers’ Lower Kaimai, Baypark orchard in April to join a team of workers picking kiwifruit.
“We’d never picked kiwifruit before and while we love eating it, had little idea of how it was grown, managed or harvested,” says Barbara.
James did however, know that his great uncle Bruno Just was a nurseryman who played a significant role in the breeding of kiwifruit vines.
“The family story was that Bruno Just and Hayward Wright went to China and brought back kiwifruit plants which they bred to become the Hayward and Bruno varieties,” says James.
James Just with a copy of the New Zealand Kiwifruit Centennial Journal, published in 2004, which includes an article about his ancestor Bruno Just.
However, Graham Dyer was able to set the record straight, telling James that it was NZ teacher Isobel Fraser who, in 1904, brought the first kiwifruit seeds (then known as Ichang gooseberries) to New Zealand. She gave them to Wanganui solicitor and orchardist Thomas Allison who passed them on to his brother Alexander. Alexander shared graft wood and seedlings with fellow nurserymen, including Frank Mason and it was from Frank that Bruno Just obtained his first kiwifruit seedlings.
From these Bruno began selecting plants for what he considered were the best traits, eventually leading to the development of the Bruno variety. Hayward Wright went on to breed the green fruit which today carries his name and is the most widely grown kiwifruit in NZ and around the world.
Bruno vines are prolific producers of large elongated fruit, with a dark brown skin with dense, short, bristly hairs. The flesh is light-green and the fruit ripens in early May.
Bruno are fruit no longer grown commercially but the rootstock bred by Bruno Just has, in Graham Dyer’s opinion, helped save the NZ kiwifruit industry.
“Bruno is the most widely planted rootstock in NZ orchards and it has proved tolerant of the vine disease Psa-V. Without it growers would not have been able to re-graft to new varieties, which would have been disastrous for the industry,” says Graham.
The disease Psa-V was found in Te Puke gold kiwifruit orchards in 2010 and in order to combat it, infected vines were removed and new stringent disease control measures introduced. Plant & Food and Zespri had new gold varieties under development and one, G3, proved tolerant to the disease, enabling it to be grafted onto rootstock, the majority of which were the Bruno variety.
While some growers were so hard hit they had to give up orcharding, the success of the new gold and the strength of Bruno rootstock enabled the industry to make a remarkable recovery.
James says while the myth about Bruno and Hayward going to China to collect seeds had a certain romance, the real story of his great uncle’s lasting legacy to the industry is even more impressive.
“I’m delighted to find out the truth about Bruno and what he has done for the industry. I think if he were alive today Bruno would be amazed at how the industry has developed, and be awestruck that his horticultural skills helped to save it.”
Bruno was the brother of James’ great-grandfather Carl Julius, the son of assisted immigrants Fredrick Wilhelm and Pauline Just who arrived from Germany on January 24, 1876. Carl, their oldest child, was born during the sea voyage to NZ. The family eventually settled in Fitzherbert Rd, Palmerston North.
“All the family had green fingers. My father, also called Carl, was a greengrocer in Remuera. We lived above the shop and dad had a wonderful flower garden which customers always commented on. I remember it winning a best garden award,” says James.
James didn’t follow the family’s horticultural traditions but took up several occupations, including a clerical position at Air New Zealand for 38 years. “I do, however, love vegetable gardening and growing fruit trees.” That’s in between the “gypsy” lifestyle he and Barbara have adopted now they are retired.