Common Name: Blueberries
Scientific Name: Species in the Vaccinium genus and the Cyanococcus section
Family: Ericaceae (the Heather family)
- Lowbush/Wild Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium)
- Rabbiteye/Southern Black Blueberry (Vaccinium ashei or Vaccinium virgatum)
- Northern/Alpine Blueberry (Vaccinium boreale)
- Highbush Blueberry (Northern) (Vaccinium corymbosum)
- Highbush Blueberry (Southern) (Vaccinium darrowii)
- Creeping Blueberry (Vaccinium crassifolium)
- Velvet Leaf/Canadian Blueberry (Vaccinium myrtilloides)
The Blueberry is one of the most well known fruit around the world. It is highly nutritious, highly flavorful, and used in a variety of ways. Primarily used for its fruit, there are blueberries that can be grown in almost any Temperate Climate around the world. A little work is needed to get their acidic soil needs met, but after that we are left with a moderately long-lived, productive plant needing very little maintenance. Blueberries are on my list of mandatory plants in the Forest Garden.
Native to North America, blueberries were used my Native Americans for thousands of years before Europeans took this plant around the world. The first cultivated blueberries (Highbush Blueberries) were introduced in Europe in the 1930’s.
- The Bilberry, aka “European Blueberry” (Vaccinium myrtillus) is closely related to the North American blueberry species, but it is not in the Cyanococcus section of the Vaccinium genus, so they are not true blueberries. Bilberries have red flesh unlike the white or light green flesh of true blueberries.
- “Huckleberry” refers to a plant that is either a true huckleberry in the Gaylussacia or Vaccinium genus like the Blue Huckleberry (G. frondosa) or Red Huckleberry (V. parvifolium). The name “Huckleberry” is often a local name given to plants, typically in the Appalacia area of Eastern North America, that are really true blueberries.
- “Half-High” Blueberries are a cross between Highbush and Lowbush types. They are very tolerant of cold weather, but reportedly are not too flavorful.
USING THIS PLANT
- Fresh Fruit
- Cooked Fruit
- Baked Goods, Pies, Tarts, Pancakes (!), etc.
- Preserves, Jams, Jellies, etc.
- Frozen (place washed and dried fruit in a single layer on a wax-paper lined baking sheet and place into the freezer for 20-30 minutes before placing in a container – this will keep the berries from freezing together into one large chunk)
- Used as primary or flavoring agent in beers, wine, liquors, cordials, etc.
- General insect (especially bees) nectar plant
- Wildlife food source
- Hummingbird plant
- Ground cover plant (mainly the Lowbush Blueberry in cooler climates and the Creeping Blueberry in warmer climates)
- Edible Hedging
- Tea Plant – dried fruit and leaves
- Dye Plant – purple, from fruit and leaves
Yield: 3-8 quarts (3.5-9 liters) or 8-15 lbs (3.5-6.8 kg) per mature plant
Harvesting: Late Summer – Early Autumn (July – September). The best fruits are ones that fall from the branch with a little shake. Most blueberries in grocery stores were harvested once the fruit turned blue (and sometimes not even quite blue!). Blueberries to not “ripen” after picked, so harvest the berries when they have been blue for a few days.
Storage: Fresh fruits will keep for 1, maybe 2, weeks in a cool, humid location
DESIGNING WITH THIS PLANT
USDA Hardiness Zone:
- Lowbush/Wild Blueberry: 2-7 (Deciduous)
- Rabbiteye Blueberry: 7-9 (Deciduous)
- Highbush Blueberry (Northern): 2-8 (Deciduous)
- Highbush Blueberry (Southern): 5-10 (Deciduous)
- Creeping Blueberry: 6-9 (Evergreen)
- Lowbush/Wild Blueberry: 8-1
- Rabbiteye Blueberry: 7-9, said to “love the heat”
- Highbush Blueberry (Northern): 7-1
- Highbush Blueberry (Southern): No reliable information available
- Creeping Blueberry: No reliable information available
- Lowbush/Wild Blueberry: 1,000-1,200 hours
- Rabbiteye Blueberry: 350-700 hours
- Highbush Blueberry (Northern): 800-1,000 hours
- Highbush Blueberry (Southern): 150-800 hours
- Creeping Blueberry: No reliable information available
Plant Type: Small Shrub (including prostrate forms) to Large Shrub
Leaf Type: Most are Deciduous, few are Evergreen
Forest Garden Use: Shrub Layer, Groundcover/Creeper Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: Wide variety of species and varieties available – there will be at least one type well suited to your location. Most blueberries available for purchase are hybrids of multiple species.
Pollination: Most are Self-Fertile; however, Blueberries will produce significantly more fruit if another cultivar/variety is in the immediate area. Pollinated by bees and other insects.
Flowering: Late Spring-Early Summer (May-June)
Years to Begin Bearing: 3-5 years
Years to Mature Bearing: 6-8 years
Years of Useful Life: Average 10-15 years, but some plants have been productive for over 50 years
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THIS PLANT
- Lowbush/Wild Blueberry: 18-24 inches (45-60 cm) tall and 2-3 feet (60-90 cm) wide
- Rabbiteye/Southern Black Blueberry: 6-18 feet (1.8-5.4 meters) tall and wide
- Highbush Blueberry (Northern): 6-12 feet (1.8-3.6 meters) tall and wide
- Highbush Blueberry (Southern): 3 feet (0.9 meters) tall and wide
- Creeping Blueberry: 3-6 inches (7.5-15 cm) tall and spread up to 6 feet (1.8 meters) wide
Roots: Relatively shallow and flat. Most have a suckering or stoloniferous growth habit… sending up new plants from underground roots or putting down roots from creeping stems.
Growth Rate: Slow
GROWING CONDITIONS FOR THIS PLANT
Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates medium shade, but reducing sunlight also reduces yields
Moisture: Dry to moist soils, depending on the species/variety
pH: prefers more acidic soil (3.5-5.5)
Special Considerations for Growing:
- The acidic soil the blueberries love can help be maintained with pine needle mulch if available
- Blueberries can be early-, mid-, or late-season cropping which provides a longer harvesting season
- Does not tolerate juglone (natural growth inhibitor produced by Black Walnut and its relatives). Consider using another plant as a buffer between your blueberries and walnuts.
Propagation: From seed. Up to 90 days of cold stratification may be required. Cuttings are possible but take some skill – softwood cuttings in Summer. Division of suckers are easier and can be taken in Spring or Autumn.
- Cut back the “twiggy” branches at planting to encourage good initial root development.
- Prune after 3 years or so to open up the plant; blueberries can develop into less productive, thicket-like shrubs if left un-pruned.
- Yearly pruning of older woody growth will encourage new growth and larger berries. Remember that berries grow on wood that is one year or older, so don’t get too carried away every year.
- Netting may be required to protect the harvest from the birds
- If the leaves start to yellow, then the plant likely needs more acid.