A Shrub for All Seasons
Native Ericaceae species
Growing up in New Jersey, it was impossible for me to be ignorant of blueberries. The Garden State has a proud agricultural heritage, and of local produce, blueberries may be the most prized. They grow wild in the region, and New Jersey was the first state to cultivate them. In summer, my family would drive south to a “pick your own” farm. Some berries were devoured immediately—popped into my mouth as quickly as they were plucked from the shrub. Those that made it into my tin bucket had a long trip home in the cooler. A portion were set aside for eating fresh with homemade whipped cream, and the rest were frozen to be enjoyed in the heat of the summer. Those icy, flavorful bursts were a delicious remedy to the sweltering humidity of August.
Vaccinium corymbosum (highbush blueberry)
I never thought about the plant itself as anything other than a generator of tasty treats. Years later, a trip to the New Jersey Pinelands cast the shrub in a new light. That April afternoon I walked along the edge of a pond in the pine-oak woodlands and smelled something light and sweet. It was my old friend the highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), but dressed for spring. The plant was arrayed in a profusion of small, bell-shaped flowers—exuding the delicate scent that had attracted me—precursors to the fruits I so relished. Examining the white and pink blossoms, I realized that blueberries offer much more than edibles.
If pollinated, the spring-blooming flowers produce the sweet dusky-blue berries of summer. In the autumn, before they fall, the shrub’s leaves turn various shades of orange and red (vermilion, anyone?). Older plants are beautiful in winter, sporting craggy, contorted stems. This plant is that elusive ornamental gem: a four-season showstopper. Blueberries (Vaccinium species) and closely related huckleberries (Gaylussacia species) are such great garden plants that no one should be without at least one.
The rows and rows of farmed blueberry fields aren’t a very far cry from their displays in the wild. These slow-growing shrubs easily reproduce vegetatively to form extensive colonies over time. Such masses make picking berries easy. The cultivated highbush blueberry of my youth prefers to have its feet wet in bogs, open swamps, and pond margins. Occasionally it may also be found haunting drier sites, like scrubby oak barrens or pine barrens— undisturbed open woodlands with well-drained, low pH, sandy (in some cases, rocky) soils.
Such sites are where most members of the Ericaceae, or heath family, reside, including lowbush blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium, V. pallidum), black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata), and dangleberry (G. frondosa). These shrubs look very similar, with alternate, smooth-edged leaves, urn-shaped flowers, and dark fruits, and their differentiation has eluded many a woodland wanderer. Both blueberries and huckleberries honor their filial ties and grow together. Here are some easy identifying tricks: Wipe the underside of a leaf on a white piece of paper. If a yellow smudge appears, it is a huckleberry.
Gaylussacia species have golden resin dots that are visible with a hand lens; Vaccinium species do not. Next time you’re out gathering berries, when you pop one into your mouth, pay attention. While chewing, if you hear the crunch of seeds, then you’ve just eaten a huckleberry.
Ericaceous species are found in many upland and wetland habitats. Soil acidity, rather than moisture level, seems to be the determining factor for their presence in the landscape. Floristic neighbors in their forest habitats include additional members of the heath family, such as pinkster azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides), round-leaf pyrola (Pyrola rotundifolia), trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens), and spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata). Unrelated companion species include mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium), Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense), wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) and Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica), as well as various oaks (Quercus species), pines (Pinus species), and hickories (Carya species) overhead.
A Feast for Birds and Butterflies
Gaylussacia and Vaccinium are two of the best genera for wildlife. Their leaves are eaten by many species of butterfly caterpillars, including sulfurs and fritillaries. The flowers are melittophilous, producing copious nectar that entices their insect intermediaries, particularly native bees. The early-spring blooms are an important source of nectar for native bees that emerge early in the growing season, such as bumble bees and smaller andrenid bees. (It’s common to find punctures at the base of flowers, made by bees looking for a shortcut to their nectar reward, a practice called nectar robbing.)
Other floral visitors include syrphid flies, horseflies, hoverflies, and elfins. Fruits are eaten and dispersed mostly by songbirds. In fact, the birds’ enjoyment of the produce may rival my own. Ecologist William Reiners observed that “during the fruiting season, bird feces have a blue color and the larger seeds of Gaylussacia baccata may be conspicuous.”
There is another thread in the intricate ecological tapestry to recommend these plants. In his book Bringing Nature Home, naturalist Douglas Tallamy notes that 288 species of moths and butterflies survive off the tender leaves of Vaccinium species. As young insects, these caterpillars are the sole food source for nestlings of 96 percent of North American bird species. Quite apart from the berries, to feed your avian neighbors, you have to feed the bugs. Tallamy also notes research showing a direct correlation between habitat destruction and bird and insect species loss. Gardeners can help stem the tide of biodiversity loss by planting natives in their yards.
In the Garden
I’ve used blueberries and huckleberries to address the varied wishes of my landscape design clients. One wanted a low-maintenance shrub for her yard that would be attractive throughout the year. Another was looking for a plant that would thrive in a container for his windy terrace. A third was interested in creating a little oasis for wildlife using native flora. The edible berries are a tasty bonus (if you can beat the birds to them). The rather dire natural conditions these shrubs are adapted to make them hardy and versatile. They love the coddled life of a garden plant.
Of the Vaccinium species in this profile, highbush blueberry (V. corymbosum) is by far the most commonly cultivated and so offers the most choices. In the wild, it can grow nine feet tall, but most cultivars are more compact and grow to between five and eight feet. ‘Patriot’, one of the most popular cultivars, bears large fruits early in the season. Those seeking midsummer berries should consider ‘Blueray’, with big, tasty fruits, or ‘Northland’, a hardy, heavy bearer. ‘Jersey’ reliably puts out berries that ripen in late July.
There are some “half high” shrubs that have been crossed to produce the larger fruits of Vaccinium corymbosum with the shorter stature of V. angustifolium. These include ‘Top Hat’, ‘Northcountry’, and ‘Northsky’.
Lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), a prostrate, very twiggy shrub, tolerates cold best among blueberry species, but it has less shade tolerance. It needs a good six hours of sunlight, which makes it perfect for a green roof. Its smaller berries hold less water than highbush fruit, making them more suitable for canning and freezing. Some cultivars known for their fall color are ‘Burgundy’, ‘Claret’, and ‘Jonesboro’. These plants flourish in pots, the larger and deeper the better. Even highbush cultivars will thrive in pots with proper pruning.
Huckleberries are not often grown as garden ornamentals, but straight species do well in the garden and can be found at nurseries specializing in native plants.
While easy to maintain once established, these shrubs do require advance preparation to ensure a long life. Competition with turf grasses is problematic for these shallow-rooted plants, so start preparing their bed in summer and fall for spring planting. Lay down a heavy layer of newspaper to kill the grass; add acidic materials like pine needles and oak leaves as mulch.
Getting the soil right is important. Incorporate composted pine bark and enough elemental sulfur to achieve a pH between 4.5 and 5.0. (Avoid using peat moss because its harvest destroys bog ecosystems). Good drainage is key. The planting hole should be as deep as the crown of the shrub and at least twice as wide.
As with all fruiting plants, blueberries and huckleberries will bear more profusely if you grow two or more cultivars to increase cross-pollination. Starting with two-year-old stock is best for longevity and fruit production.