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Photo courtesy of U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE via Scripps Howard News Service The lovely bell-shaped flowers of blueberries add beauty to the plants in spring.
Sunday, February 5, 2012

How the modern blueberry came to be

New Jersey was devastated by iron mining in the 19th century.

The land was dredged and drained to create more ground for expanding an iron furnace. The result was an environmental catastrophe that left the swampy land nearly worthless and too poor to support crops.

That is, until 1860, when agriculture transformed the wasteland into prime cranberry bogs.

Elizabeth White’s father was lucky enough to own 3,000 acres on which he developed a significant cranberry farm named Whitesbog. Elizabeth believed her father could increase the farm’s income if she could manage to grow blueberries on these elevated strips. But at the time, blueberries, despite many attempts, couldn’t be propagated by cutting.

When a superior plant is found, cuttings allow a new plant to be created that’s genetically identical to its predecessor. If a new plant is grown from the seed of that superior plant, it won’t be identical genetically. So, creating new plants through cuttings and tissue culture are the only ways to multiply that superior plant in quantities suitable for growers to provide stock for farmers and consumers.

Elizabeth was helping manage her father’s farm when she came upon a government pamphlet by Dr. Frederick Coville, a leader in the effort to find a reliable means of propagating blueberries. She invited him to Whitesbog, and together, they rambled through the rural areas taking samples from the best wild high-bush blueberry plants they found.

Elizabeth also enlisted neighbors to help evaluate wild plants on their land. She developed the criteria they used to find the best plants to use in Coville’s work.

Coville eventually took this data and crossed the best native blueberry plants in hopes of finding a more adaptable individual. Elizabeth named this first variety Tru-Blu and harvested the first crop at Whitesbog in 1916.

This is the foundation of our modern blueberry world, and since Elizabeth’s efforts, wild blueberries from all over America have been used in the breeding process.

Among the most important are the Southern Highbush types that have in their genes a marked tolerance for hot climates. There are also lowbush and rabbiteye types, which further expand adaptability.

The result is a more diverse fruit that can now be grown just about anywhere, even in the Deep South and the West.

One place to see the results of this long-term effort in varieties you can grow is at Monrovia.com, a wholesale grower of landscape plants. It offers 20 blueberry varieties, each one suited for a particular climate and harvest season.

Because this isn’t a mail-order grower, you can buy your blueberries in large containers so they begin bearing well the first year. You needn’t wait for maturity.

Monrovia ships to independent garden centers, so any you find on the Web site can be ordered at your local nursery.

The best part about blueberries is that they’re borne on attractive woody shrubs that produce for more than 50 years. These can be grown as an ornamental in the garden, but they still yield a great crop every year.

Growing a number of varieties in an informal hedge makes harvest easy, and you can better compare fruit and plant quality. It also facilitates cross-pollination to ensure much larger crops.

Take care to select blueberries well adapted to your area. Provide well-drained, acidic, sandy soil. They aren’t at all tolerant of clay or hardpan, so they are often grown on hillsides to compensate for the limited drainage.

Blueberries also do just fine in containers. Wind can be a problem, though.

Thanks to Elizabeth White’s innovative thinking and Frederick Coville’s lifelong work, the blueberry has exploded into the 21st century with a perfect crop for the home garden. If you aren’t fond of the high cost and limited quantity in stores, pass by the ordinary shrubs and landscape using these great plants that offer spring flowers, vivid fall color and a whole bog-load of fruit.

Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com. Contact her at mogilmer@yahoo.com or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.