Roger Gates: It's Blueberry Month

Roger Gates

On May 8, 1999, the United States Department of Agriculture proclaimed July as National Blueberry Month. Given the importance of blueberries in American culture and history and the fact that the United States produces more than 90% of all of the blueberries in the world, it is appropriate that July marks this fruit as well as our independence. The celebration is now designated annually.

These once wild berries are referred to at times as “star berries” because of the five-pointed star evident at the bottom of each fruit. Domestication began during the early 1900s, thanks to the observations of Elizabeth Coleman White and the research of Frederick V. Coville. Before their efforts, wild blueberries could not be successfully transplanted or raised in a farm setting or for commercial production. The only way to enjoy fresh blueberries was to seek them out where they grew naturally. Through the efforts of White and Coville, producers and private gardeners today are able to produce these delicious berries.

Because they are native, rabbiteye blueberries are very well adapted and tolerate less intensive management than many other fruits, seldom requiring spraying to control diseases or insect pests. This species is the best choice for home production across the state. With good management, bushes may be expected to produce fruit as early as the second year, but may require six years to achieve optimum production.

While the emphasis of plant breeders has been on developing blueberry varieties for commercial production, University of Georgia plant breeder Scott NeSmith has also considered the needs of gardeners and has introduced a series of blueberry plants bred for home landscapes.

Blueberries have to travel long distances to get from farmers to consumers. These berries must be extremely firm when they are picked so they can withstand mechanical harvesting, hold up through long-distance shipping and have a long shelf life, NeSmith said. “You can’t have berries that leak and ooze while they are being shipped to market,” he said. “But in a home setting, it doesn’t matter because you are going to eat them right away.”

Commercial blueberry varieties must also ripen at one time. In a home setting, gardeners like to pick a bowlful at a time, so they don’t mind an extended ripening season, NeSmith said.

Many of the blueberry plants bred by NeSmith did not meet commercial standards but produced pretty and large fruit or a plant with an attractive shape or foliage. He decided to take a second look at these plants for home gardeners and the edible-ornamental market.

“A couple of these new ornamental blueberry releases are ultra-dwarfs and would make for a great patio plant,” he said. “Others have attractive foliage during the growing season. You can enjoy the beautiful, colored foliage in the fall and winter; flowers in the spring; and delicious berries in the summer.”

“We wanted these plants to produce good-tasting fruit,” he said. “Some produce small, dark berries, and some produce multicolored berries. Above all, you don’t have to worry about whether your kids or grandkids pick and eat them because they are safe to eat.”

“Our goal is to help consumers surround themselves with flavorful beauty in their own home landscapes,” he said.

The following are a few of the blueberry varieties NeSmith has released especially for home gardens.

Blue Suede is a highbush blueberry that produces a normal-sized home garden plant; has attractive, sky-blue fruit and attractive fall foliage; ripens over time; and is self-pollinating.

Cutie Pie is a dwarf hybrid that’s compact, with small leaves; generally keeps attractive foliage into the fall; is very attractive during flowering because it puts on a lot of flowers; has small, darker berries; and produces a good crop load.

Frostberry Delight is a rabbiteye blueberry that produces large, sky-blue berries and blue, green and silver foliage; is self-pollinating; and is heat- and drought-tolerant.

Southern Bluebelle is a highbush blueberry that’s an ultra-dwarf plant; produces medium- to large-sized, light-blue fruit and an abundance of berries; and flowers profusely.

Summer Sunset is a rabbiteye blueberry that has deep green foliage; multicolored berries that turn from light green to yellow to orange to sunset red to midnight blue as they ripen; and produces normal-sized berries with a full-flavored taste.

Mid-summer is a poor season to consider planting blueberries, but if you’re a fan of the fruit and would like to grow your own, these new varieties might be worth considering for planting this fall.

Roger Gates is the agricultural and natural resources agent for University of Georgia Extension, Whitfield County. Contact him at roger.gates@uga.edu.

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