History of the Blueberry
The origin of most commercial crops is lost in antiquity. We’ll never know who to thank for selecting and taming wheat and corn, or tomatoes, or apples and cherries, nor exactly how many thousands of years ago they went from wild collected harvests to intentionally planted staples.
But blueberries are different. We owe the tasty, antioxidant rich modern wonder (and multi-billion dollar agricultural industry) that is the high-bush blueberry to an American woman.
Elizabeth Coleman White
Growing up in New Jersey in the late 1800’s on her family’s cranberry farm, Elizabeth developed an intense interest in the business of farming at an early age, and as an adult continued to work alongside her father on the plantation.
In 1910, she read a US Department of Agriculture bulletin by Frederick Coville, on propagation and cultural needs of the wild blueberry. Though common wisdom was that the blueberry was too picky and variable to cultivate, she had wondered if the ones that grew wild on the plantation could be developed, like wild cranberries had been a few decades before. She contacted Coville, offering to pay the USDA to use her property to research blueberry varieties and breeding, and arranged for local wild blueberry harvesters to select and bring in exceptional bushes for trial and breeding.
Over the next four years, she selected and propagated the best 100 wild blueberry plants she could locate, planting them on the farm and sending specimens to Frederick Coville to continue work on breeding new and improved varieties.
In 1916, the first commercial harvest of domesticated high-bush blueberries was carried out on the White’s plantation, yielding 600 quarts of large, uniformly shaped and ripe berries. One of the original selections, the Rubel, is still widely available; Coville’s breeding created many more varieties, and the development of the blueberry continues to this day.
New blueberries for the home gardener have been selected to be self-fertile, to produce over a long season, and to grow in small spaces (even in containers).
Image courtesy: http://www.scc.rutgers.edu/njwomenshistory/Period_4/white.htm
Benefits of Growing & Eating Blueberries
July is National Blueberry Month so we want to make sure you know why they’re worth celebrating! Blueberries provide us with more than just scrumptious berries in summer to snack on all day long. Here are just a few excellent benefits of growing blueberry bushes:
- The flowers of blueberry shrubs are a great food source for early season pollinators.
- There are varieties of blueberries that grow short and compact, and are self-pollinating, which make great container plants for small spaces.
- Blueberry bushes are attractive shrubs in the garden as they give a prolific bloom of lovely bell-shaped flowers in spring, awesome fall foliage color, and winter interest with colorful red stems.
- Blueberries are one of the most nutrient dense berries containing 4 essential nutrients including fiber, Vitamin C, Vitamin K and manganese.
- Berries can be used in a variety of recipes to enhance flavors and give a sweet or tart twist to a dish such as pancakes, salads, and smoothies.
- Blueberries are packed with antioxidants which protect your body from free radicals that can damage your cells and contribute to aging and disease, such as cancer.
Blueberry Growing Tips
If you like blueberries, then plan on 2 blueberry plants per family member. If you want to enjoy frozen blueberries year-round, then plant about 4 blueberry plants per family member. Shop Our Berries>>
Plant blueberries in well-drained soil amending with a quality compost mix that lends to an acidic soil pH such as the G&B Organics Acid Planting Mix. Space plants about 6 feet apart and allow 8 feet between rows. Plant with the top of the root mass just at the soil surface. Mulch with 3 to 4 inches of compost or bark mulch.
Blueberries are fertilized when their leaf buds start to open, generally in spring.
Blueberries need an acidic fertilizer that is balanced, a Rhododendron-type fertilizer will work perfectly, such as G&B Organics Rhododendron, Azalea, Camellia fertilizer.
It is common practice in large-scale blueberry farms to use mulches like sawdust which are low grade and deplete the soil’s nitrogen. If you’re going to use sawdust or bark mulch, then it is important to add a bit more nitrogen.
Prune blueberry bushes while they are dormant. Here in the mid- Willamette Valley, this could be anytime between November and February.
Prune young blueberries lightly to encourage a bushy upright spreading shape. As they age, blueberries need to have old production branches removed to allow newer, more vigorous canes to grow through. With clean pruners, prune out branches that are growing toward the middle of the plant, broken twigs, and diseased or weak twigs. Also prune out a branch that is crossing over another one so the branches don’t rub against each other as they grow and cause wounds to the bark. Clear the debris away from the plant after pruning to prevent disease issues.
Learn more about blueberry pruning methods from the Oregon State University Extension Service.
Disease and Pest Control
Blueberries can have problems with leaf spot and stem canker. Scheduled sprays can help to reduce these diseases. The fruit is subject to botrytis and mummy berry, both of which can be controlled with a fungicide.
Birds can become a problem eating berries, so staking bird netting around plants, or tying flashy tape strips to branches, can deter and reduce their consumption.