Blueberries are a passion of mine. I have loved them for a long time, only when I was young my father would take my available brothers and me huckleberry picking. I knew them as huckleberries.
My mother stayed home with the babies and made pie crusts, so that as soon as we got them home and cleaned them, we'd have huckleberry pies. Waiting for the pies to cool down and gel in order to eat them seemed an eternity to salivating youngsters, my brothers and me. We ate them on ice cream, in a bowl with cream, on cereal and, of course, mother's muffins. I was an adult before I realized other people called them blueberries.
So, recently I began to wonder what the difference was between blueberries and huckleberries. There really is a difference.
Huckleberries and blueberries are kissing cousins according to my foraging guru, Green Deane. Huckleberries look like black blueberries and have 10 stony seeds inside. On the underside of their leaves you will find yellow dots that sparkle, oil glands. There are blue or red huckleberries also, and all huckleberries are smaller and sweeter than blueberries. Both are in the heath (Ericaceae) family, with Gaylussacia (huckleberries) genus, named for Louis Joseph Gay-Lussac, 1778-1859, a French chemist who discovered the law of combining volumes of gasses. According to Henry David Thoreau, huckleberry came from a corruption of hurtleberry, a variety of European blueberry.
Huckleberries are difficult to produce commercially because they need to be handpicked and are more naturally found in the wild. Here in Florida, they tend to be a tiny bush in saw palmetto prairies and pine flat woodlands. Their plant bears dark pink to dull red flowers. Very important to wildlife, it has been said you must beware of bears when picking huckleberries because they comprise a third of a bear's feeding, so do not pick early in the day or early evening. The high sugar helps bears store fat for their long winter hibernation.
They are the state fruit of Idaho.
Incidentally, cranberries, rhododendron and azaleas are in the Ericaceae family, also.
On the other hand, blueberries of the Ericaceae family, belong to Vaccinium genus. With blossoms white to light green or pale pink flowers, their fruit is black, deep purple or red, and are full of soft and tiny seeds. They can easily be cultivated; therefore they get plenty of water and other required resources. This increases the water content in the fruits, causing the berry to have a bland taste.
Commercially, blueberry culture started in the United States in New Jersey at Whitesbog, now Brendan Byrne State Forest. Between 1911 and 1916, Dr. Frederick Coville of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, along with Elizabeth White, created the commercial highbush blueberry by collecting, crossing and selecting superior blueberry varieties from the wild.
In Florida, two types of blueberries grow well, rabbiteye and southern highbush, however only the low-chill cultivars of both have been developed by plant breeders at the University of Florida, specifically for our mild winters in north and central Florida.
Both thrive on high acidic soil, more than what is found in Florida. Requiring a pH of 4.0-5.5, higher levels will lead to deficiencies in iron and zinc. Needing well drained soil of at least 18 inches depth, blueberries should be planted on raised beds filled with 3 percent organic matter plus peat moss. A small amount of granulated sulfur can be incorporated into the soil several months before planting. Never add aluminum sulfate to berries. Plants need 4-5 hours of full sun each day away from roots of all trees but pines. They coexist nicely with pine tree roots. Partial shade or open woodland settings help. Plant mid-December to mid-February.
They thrive in poor acidic soil and do not need a lot of fertilizer, but they do need cross-pollination from another cultivar of the same type, southern highbush to southern highbush or rabbiteye to rabbiteye. Mulch with 3 inches of pine bark, pine needles or oak leaves to help keep high acidity in soil. Prune plants at planting. Remove all flowers the first year before they set fruit to encourage growth and allow them to establish themselves.
For South Florida, they developed a new breed that is a cross between the highbush and rabbiteye called Southern Highbush or Tetraploid. Here are three varieties. Emerald has large clusters of big berries, bearing in April and May. Gulf Coast, also a super producer in April and May. Sharpblue, the most popular variety for South Florida. Berries ripen in early May and continue for six weeks.
Then there is Sunshine Blue, called the perfect blueberry, self pollinating, very low chill variety and successfully grown in Zone 10a. Its leaves turn to a purplish red in the fall, semi-evergreen and only grows 3-4 feet high, making it great for containers and hedges.
Recently I found out that the Master Gardeners caring for the Cape Coral Historical Museum had established a mound of blueberry plants there. They made their own acidic soil mound, layering papers, peat and organic soil and planted native blueberries from The Native Plant Center. They are very small and the berries will be small. They mulched with pine mulch. Interested in seeing how well they do.
Interesting facts about blueberries: the colonists in America made gray paint by boiling a mixture of milk and blueberries in the United States of America, about 200 million pounds of blueberries are produced annually on a commercial basis although strawberries may rank first as the most popular berry among people, blueberries rank second the blueberry muffin is the official state muffin of Minnesota blueberry is the official state fruit of New Jersey.
Saw this bumper sticker -Are you breathing? Thank a tree. Trees make oxygen. Trees eat our CO2.
Be kind to the trees.
Joyce Comingore is a Master Gardener, hibiscus enthusiast and member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.