National Geographic : 1951 Sep
Blueberries Are Crops That Raise Themselves W HEN forests are cut or burned away, blueberries are often among the first plants to spring up on the cleared field. Frequently they become the dominant vege tation, providing the landowner with a pay ing crop that requires little care except for harvesting. If the field is completely neglected, how ever, taller shrubs and trees soon grow and shade or choke out the blueberries. Thus in New England and other areas where native blueberries are harvested, it is a common sight to see a farmer burning or mowing his blue berry fields. The berries quickly spring up again; the second year after burning a maxi mum crop will be ready. Some farmers fer tilize the fields occasionally and also dust or spray them to control berry worms. On many farms this wild crop is a principal source of income. The blueberry group is probably the most widely distributed fruit in the world. Species of this group are distributed over much of Asia, Europe, and North and South America. They extend from the Tropics to the northern limits of human habitation. They are a valu able addition to the diet of the Eskimos. Although widely distributed and widely used as food, only in the United States and Canada is the blueberry a cultivated, horti cultural crop. All of the blueberries grown in North America have been bred from species which are native here. If You Feel the Seeds, It's a Huckleberry There is great confusion in the common names blueberry and huckleberry. In some areas the names are used interchangeably. The U. S. Department of Agriculture and most botanists and horticulturists now use the name huckleberry for the berries belong ing to a related group of plants that have 10 rather large bony seeds which are notice able and somewhat objectionable when the fruit is eaten. Blueberries, on the other hand, have a large number of very small, inconspicu ous seeds-so small that they are not noticed when eating the fruit. Only the blueberries are grown as a horticultural crop. The blueberry thrives only on acid soils. Various species occur over most of the United States and Canada east of the dry prairies. Along the west coast, especially in mountain sites, blueberries also thrive abundantly. The blueberry still is gathered in quantities from the wild. The coastal counties of Maine, the Appalachian plateau from New England to Georgia and Alabama, the Ozarks of Mis souri and Arkansas, and the Cascade and Coast Range mountains of the Pacific States are areas where picking and selling wild blue berries is an important industry. Cash value of the annual wild blueberry crop in the United States has been estimated at between $8,000,000 and $10,000,000. The fruit of at least seven species is har vested on a fairly large scale. The most im portant species for native harvest is the low bush blueberry, Vaccinium angustifolium, the dominant kind from New England west to Minnesota. Second is the high-bush blue berry, V. corymbosum, found throughout the Atlantic Coastal Plain from New England to Georgia, and westward to Lake Michigan. Improvement of blueberries by breeding is the work of the past half-century. Two names stand out in the story of this research. One is Dr. Frederick V. Coville, long a botanist of the U. S. Department of Agriculture; the other is Miss Elizabeth C. White, a pioneer grower in Whitesbog, New Jersey. Miss White offered cash prizes for the native high bush plants producing the largest fruit, and thus was able to assemble many large-fruited forms. Dr. Coville and Miss White made crosses, starting in 1909, among these superior plants. The breeding work was continued until Dr. Coville's death in 1937. Miss White has con tinued her research to the present. As a result of this work, 18 varieties hav ing large fruit, attractive color, and ripening over about a two-month period have been in troduced. These varieties today constitute the extensive cultivated blueberry industry in New Jersey, Michigan, North Carolina, and other States. The fruit of some of them is more than double the size of the largest wild berries. In the far South, the rabbit-eye blueberry, V. ashei, is cultivated on a considerable scale. A number of varieties have been selected from the wild, but only in the past decade has systematic breeding been undertaken. This species is well adapted in the areas within about 300 miles of the Gulf of Mexico. Between 3,000 and 4,000 acres are devoted to growing them in northwestern Florida and near-by States. Mulch Is Best for Growing Because of the exacting requirement of the blueberries as to soil, they are not widely adapted to upland garden culture. They can be grown on many acid soils, particularly if the soil is kept mulched. A heavy mulch of sawdust, oak leaves, or similar material seems to provide the best growing conditions. In small gardens, birds, lovers of blueber ries, frequently will harvest the crop before it is fully ripe. Covering the plants before the fruit begins to ripen is about the only way to save the fruit where only a few bushes are grown.