Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Blueberries might seem like a topic more suited to the spring or summer, since that's when the tasty berries are in season. Their white flowers in the spring and blazing red fall color make an excellent addition to your landscape, whether you plan on harvesting their fruit or not.
Blueberries are also a very appropriate topic with Thanksgiving right around the corner. According to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, Native Americans introduced the Pilgrims at Plymouth to the blueberry in the winter of 1620. Given this fact, it is very likely that the blueberry was present at the first Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621. The only foods mentioned specifically in written accounts of the harvest feast now referred to as the first Thanksgiving were meats.
If you want to grow a truly American crop, grow blueberries. The only place they are found in the wild is in Eastern North America. Native Americans ate the fruits fresh and dried, but also used the rest of the plant in medicines. They also used the blueberry as a dye for cloth and baskets.
Blueberries are members of the genus Vacinnium, which includes over 450 different species. There are other fruit producing plants in this genus, with common names like bilberry, huckleberry, and lingonberry. The commonly known cranberry is also in Vacinnium genus.
The plants referred to and typically grown with the common name blueberry fall into three different categories: Lowbush, Highbush, and Rabbit Eye.
Lowbush blueberries are the 'wild' blueberries found in eastern North America. The plants are not very tall, typically only one or two feet tall. The fruits are also very small, but very sweet.
Highbush are, you guessed it, taller than the Lowbush blueberries. They can reach a height of ten to twelve feet. Their fruits are usually larger than the Lowbush.
Rabbit Eye blueberries are said to resemble a rabbit's eye. They are a species of blueberry native to the Southeastern U.S.
The state of Maine is the largest producer of blueberries in the world, churning out 25% of the total crop grown in all of North America. North American blueberry production typically starts in May in the south and continues through September with the help of cold storage.
In what seems to be a seasonless produce section in many grocery stores, blueberries can be found nearly year-round. This is primarily due to crops produced in the Southern hemisphere, where the seasons are opposite ours in the Northern hemisphere. Chile is both the biggest producer in the Southern hemisphere and the largest exporter to the Northern hemisphere. There the harvest begins in November and continues through March or April with cold storage, supplying many U.S. grocery stores.
Plant breeders have selected plants over many generations to produce cultivars for both commercial and home growers. Plants which have been selected to grow to small or moderate size make great shrubs for the landscape, with tasty fruit as a bonus.
A favorite of mine is the cultivar 'Tophat', which only grows to about one foot tall, making it ideal for borders or even potted. There are a multitude of other cultivars suitable for the home garden, but a few I've grown are Patriot, Northland, Rubel, and Jersey. Plants will self-pollinate to some degree, but produce more with other cultivars planted nearby for cross-pollination.
My plants have not produced an abundant crop yet, seeing as they are only two years old. It may take as long as six years for them to be fully productive. In the meantime I will just enjoy their faint pink flowers in the spring and their stunning red fall color.
Acid soil is a must for healthy blueberry plants. Plan on testing the soil pH in the area you wish to plant blueberries. Contact your local Extension office for information on soil testing and amending soil to adjust pH. Blueberries need a pH of about 4.8- 5.2 to thrive. Yellowing blueberry leaves may be a sign your pH is too high.
Blueberries have shallow roots, so they dry out easily. Keeping an inch or two of mulch around the bushes will help keep them happy during our hot summer weather.
I have found out the hard way that rabbits love blueberry bushes in the winter. Mine are planted alongside the garage, out of the wind. I was horrified to find the bushes nibbled down to little stubs last January. I could just about picture the rabbits, all sheltered out of the cold wind, thinking they had found heaven as they munched each blueberry bush down to nearly nothing.
Surprisingly, my blueberries rebounded from their torture by the rabbits. This year, I'm going into winter prepared–each plant will have its own little protective cage of wire mesh to keep them out of the rabbits' reach.