When forests are cut or burned away, blueberries are often among the first plants to spring up. Frequently they become the dominant vegetation, providing the landowner with a paying crop that requires little effort except picking.
If the field is completely neglected, 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 blueberry fields. The berries quickly spring up again; the second year after burning a maximum crop will be ready.
The blueberry group is probably the most widely distributed fruit in the world. Species are spread over Asia, Europe, and North and South America. They extend from the Tropics to the northern limits of human habitation, where they are a valuable addition to the Eskimo diet. Yet only in the United States and Canada is the blueberry a cultivated, horticultural crop. All blueberries grown in North America have been bred from species native here.
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 fruit of a related group of plants that have 10 rather large bony seeds. Blueberries, however, have a large number of very small, inconspicuous seeds so small they are not noticed when eaten. Only 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; also along the west coast, especially in mountain areas. Picking and selling wild blueberries is still an important industry in the coastal counties of Maine, the Appalachian plateau from New-England to Georgia and Alabama, the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas, and the Cascade and Coast Range mountains of the Pacific States.
The fruit of at least seven species is harvested on a fairly large scale. Most important is the low-bush blueberry, Vaccinium angustifolium, dominant from New England west to Minnesota. Second is the high-bush V. corymbosum, found on the Atlantic coastal plain from New England to Georgia, and west 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, late botanist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who was long Chairman of the Committee on Research of the national Geographic Society; the other is Miss Elizabeth C. White, a pioneer grower in Whites bog, New Jersey. Miss. White offered cash prizes for native high-bush plants producing the largest fruit, and thus was able to assemble many large-fruited forms.
Starting in 1909, Dr. Coville and Miss White made crosses among these superior plants. The result of many years of this work was the introduction of 18 varieties that have large fruit and attractive color, and ripen over a two-month period. The fruit of some is more than double the size of the largest wild berries. These varieties are the basis of today’s extensive cultivated blueberry industry if New Jersey, Michigan, North Carolina, and other States.
In the far South, the rabbit-eye blueberry, V. Ashei, is cultivated on a considerable scale. A number of varieties were selected from the wild, but only in the past decade has systematic breeding been undertaken. This species is well adapted to northwestern Florida and nearby States, areas within about 300 miles of the Gulf of Mexico.
Because of exacting soil requirements, blueberries are not widely adapted to upland garden culture. They can be grown on many acid soils, particularity if the soil is kept heavily mulched with sawdust, oak leaves, or similar material. In small gardens, birds often harvest the crop before it is fully ripe. Covering the plants is about the only way to save the fruit.