I guess I’m on a bit of a campaign for plants that produce something useful or tasty, and that probably isn’t going to stop any time soon.  I do enjoy a useful plant in the garden!  The not-so-humble blueberry, however, is a plant most deserving of praise and planting in the ornamental garden. Or anywhere you can spare a place for two or three- or six or nine;-)  Where to begin?

How long have blueberries been around, really? The answer is just about the entirety of human history- the ancestors of the modern blueberry bush, which comprise a wide variety of Vaccinium species, are widespread and varied, ranging a wide variety of climates although most species are from cooler temperate climes.  A berry that is collected and dried easily, it lends itself to preservation in lands where food availability is very seasonal- and was used by nearly every culture in Europe and the Americas as a food source. The Vaccinium family includes such well-known berries as lingonberry, cranberry, bilberry, huckleberry and whortleberry- there are hundreds of them , it’s a large family. Common names for plants in the family vary from one region to another- don’t argue about the name though, just eat it!

There are a few people credited with the evolution of the blueberry- John and William Bartram certainly had some influence. An American naturalist when America was still a relatively new concept, John brought his son William with him on extensive collecting trips, teaching him how to draw and passing on his delight in the plants and animals of his native countryside.  Part of their work was to assess and recommend plants to the homesteads of Georgia- Vaccinium species were among them.  Also, John sent many packages of seeds and samples to various people in Europe, so quite likely some hybridizing occurred there as well.Another person given credit is Luther Burbank, a man responsible for the Burbank potato, Shasta Daisy and more than 800 other strains of fruits, vegetables, fodder and grains. However prolific Burbank was, though, he didn’t contribute much to the improvement of the blueberry other than noting that it was a berry of interest and should be developed.  The real makers of the modern blueberry are Elizabeth Coleman White and Frederick Colville.  Elizabeth was the daughter of a gentleman farmer and grew up farming cranberries, becoming interested in blueberry propagation in 1911, she collaborated with Frederick, Chief botanist of the USDA. They are the ones responsible for the transformation of the smallish, large seeded but incredibly delicious wild berries to the large, juicy berries on e-z pick sized bushes. Paying pickers to bring in the largest berries they could find, they doubled the size of berries, earning Frederick the George Roberts White Medal of Honor from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society for contributions to agriculture.  Elizabeth went on to help form the New Jersey Cooperative Blueberry Association in 1927.

Blueberries love acid, sharply draining soils. Wild blueberries are found on sandy, humusy soils- full of organic material like decomposing leaf litter but porous and fast to drain.  Yes, they do grow in bogs and will tolerate being partly submerged for short periods, but permanently waterlogged soil means eventual demise. Consistent available moisture is also necessary for good production. (I say this while two of my blueberry bushes regard me accusingly with singed leaves and a not-juicy-at-all crop because I forgot to water them while the weather was cool and we had little rainfall. D’oh!) Commercial blueberry farmers often mulch berries with sawdust to promote a more fibrous root system, and you can do this at home too, but don’t plant them in sawdust! Wood fibre takes nitrogen out of the soil while it decomposes, and blueberries have very low nitrogen requirements, but a light mulch yearly is enough fresh wood on the soil.  You can mix some black (composted) bark mulch into the planting hole when you put them in, but no more than 1/4 the total volume of your mix. Peat moss is good to use in your soil mix when planting, but remember that peat moss, though providing ideal acidity, is nutrient free- you’ll still need fertilizer, organic or otherwise. A balanced organic fertilizer will help build up the soil more than a chemical one, but a slow releasing granular fruit fertilizer or a rhodo/azealea fertilizer is the best choice if that’s your route.  In an organic fertilizer, anything slightly lower in nitrogen and higher in potassium & phosphorus would be fine.  In the Pacific Northwest you shouldn’t need aluminum sulphate or other acidifying additives.  If you don’t lime your plants, you’ll be fine-our soil tends to be naturally acidic.  Mulch with sawdust or (I like the look better) with composted black bark mulch over fallen leaves in fall. If your plants are not very green or not growing well, mulch with something ‘rich’ in spring like compost or worm castings.  Oh, and bone meal goes in the hole.  Bone meal always goes in the hole.  Situate your plants where they will get 6 hours full sunlight or more, the more sunshine they get the more abundant -and sweeter!- the berries will be.

The pollinate debate.  Blueberries are completely demanding princesses when it comes to pollination. Some people will tell you to obtain massive amounts of plants to ensure pollination, some recommend different varieties planted together, others say two plants is enough- none of them are wrong.  The straight dope is that blueberries require pollination multiple times per berry- if you want large ones.

‘According to Aalders (1958) every blueberry fruit should contain at least 6 to 10 viable seeds. When there are less than 6 seeds, the fruit may be small and/or drop prematurely. He reported that every additional seed is responsible for a 5% increase in fruit weight and a half-day advance in fruit maturity.

Fruit development is therefore directly related to the number of viable seeds which are set. These seeds produce “hormones” which act as magnets for drawing on the plant’s resources and making the fruit grow in size. The greater the number of viable seeds, the larger will be the size of the fruit and the greater will be the ability of the fruit to resist heat and water stress. Under poor growing conditions, fruits with few viable seeds will stay small and may abort or die. All attempts to increase the number of viable seeds within the fruit will result in a yield increase. In general, a little blueberry contains less than 8 viable seeds, a medium-sized blueberry contains 10 to 15, and a large blueberry contains 16 to 18.’ Department of Agriculture and Aquaculture New Brunswick

To add insult to injury, some cultivars are very infertile and won’t pollinate themselves.  This is where planting different varieties comes in handy, but be certain to get plants that are in bloom simultaneously, or your efforts will come to an unproductive end. Most highbush blueberries (most common in our temperate climate) are self fertile and if you have a cultivar name, you can check if the variety you have is self fertile or not.  Planting in multiples, whether they are the same cultivars or not, are always best- this method attracts more bees, keeps them around longer going back and forth, and exponentially increases the chances your flowers will be pollinated repeatedly. However you CAN get berries on a single bush that is self fertile. Chances of this being successful are better if you have other flowers that bloom the same time around Pieris japonica, other heaths and vacciniums, late winter/early spring blooming heather, etc. You probably still won’t get as many berries, or as large, but it is possible to get berries on one bush. But don’t you want lots of big berries?  Of course you do- so plant plenty of bushes.

Blueberry Varieties
Highbush blueberries are the most commonly seen type in our area. The vast blueberry fields in the lower mainland are almost exclusively northern highbush types. The plants, as the name suggests, grow quite tall, some to 6 feet if left unpruned. They produce some of the largest berries and are very cold hardy, most cultivars growing in zones 4-8, though there are individual variations.  ‘Bluecrop’ is the local industry standard as it is easy to machine harvest, but there are many worth planting in the garden that are not viable commercially.  ‘Chandler’ and ‘Darrow’ have the largest berries.

Half- high blueberries are a cross between highbush and lowbush types, with a height in the middle of the two.  They are even more cold hardy than highbush, and the berries, though usually smaller, are closer to the intense flavour of their wild cousins.

Lowbush blueberries have a much lower growing pattern, usually no more than about 1 1/2 feet high. These grow less like bushes, and in some ways are more like a groundcover. They spread through underground runners, and are not so much distinct bushes but more of a mass of plants.  Fruit generally forms on the second year’s growth. More difficult to pick, but extremely tasty ‘wild’ type blueberries are produced.

Rabbiteye Blueberries (aka Southern Highbush Blueberry, Southern Black Blueberry, and Smallflower Blueberry) are a southern crop, preferring zones 7-9.  They form extremely tall bushes as high as 10 feet, have excellent flavour and ripen later in the year then other types.  Rabbiteye has been developed from blueberries native to the southeastern states- they may also be referred to as Vaccinium virgatum or v.ashei.

There are always new plants coming on the market, as breeders hybridize the various blueberries to get new and ‘better’ plants.  Highbush, lowbush and rabbiteye have all been used to breed new plants, so it’s possible to get a rabbiteye/highbush/lowbush cross!

Wild Blueberries Dewey Lake QRP Backpacking trip

And now for the best part.  Blueberry bushes are pretty! Dense and bushy, easily pruned into shapes or hedges, with small but attractive flowers in early spring that attract bees, their real showmanship comes into play in fall when first frost turns the leaves scarlet, wine and orange.  When the leaves drop, they reveal stems in hot bright colors of red to gold depending on variety.  And there’s few sights prettier to me than a fully loaded bush of dusty blue berries on a hot July day!

To choose by ornamental value, here’s a handy chart with most of the commonly available blueberries in the Pacific Northwest listed with fall colours : http://www.fallcreeknursery.com/Nursery/VarietyChart/

I think the health benefits of blueberries have been touted more than enough that I need not include any information on that front.

They are good for you, ’nuff said. Yum!

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