Grow Healthy, Delicious Blueberries
By Cindy Murphy
Blueberry Salsa Recipe
Henry David Thoreau wrote of the blueberry, “They ripen first on the tops of hills, before they who walk in the valleys suspect it. When old folks find only one turned here and there, children, who are best acquainted with the localities of berries, bring pailsful to sell at their doors.”
We didn’t sell blueberries door-to-door when we were youngsters, but my brothers and I certainly found them in the woods and fields while camping in the northern parts of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, and we ate our fair share. Michigan leads the nation in blueberry production, and going blueberry picking was our family’s summer ritual, whether it was the wild, lowbush species we found in the woods, or the cultivated, highbush varieties we picked at the berry farms.
A New World fruit
Native to North America, wild blueberries grow in swamps, low woods and open fields. There are two species of blueberries, the lowbush (Vaccinium angustifolium), and highbush (Vaccinium corymbosum). Lowbush blueberries are small and generally sweeter, but the highbush blueberry is the species that is cultivated and provides the majority of blueberries found in markets.
Long before blueberries were cultivated, they were featured in the culture, cupboards and pharmacies of Native Americans and colonists. Native Americans taught the first settlers in Plymouth how to dry blueberries; they were used in preserves and breads, and the juice was used to dye clothing.
Native Americans called blueberries “star berries,” because the calyx on the blossom end of the berries creates a five-pointed star. They believed star berries held magical powers and were sent by the Great Spirit to feed children during lean times of famine. Early American explorers also found blueberries to be gifts sent from above to stave off starvation. French explorer Samuel de Champlain wrote during his expeditions of the Ottawa River in 1616: “We also found – it was almost as if God had wished to bestow a gift of some sort on this barren and unfriendly country for the succor and support of its people – in season the riverbanks were thick with berries of all sort, including raspberries and blueberries (a small berry but very good to eat). … Without them we might have starved to death.”
Native Americans used blueberries medicinally to cure everything from morning sickness to insanity, and Civil War soldiers drank blueberry juice to protect themselves from scurvy.
Health benefits abound
The “superberry” is an apt name for the blueberry when speaking of its health and nutritional benefits. Blueberries are among the best sources of antioxidants. They offer nutrients such as potassium and iron, and are an excellent source of Vitamin C and dietary fiber. “There ain’t no cure for the summertime blues,” but these blues offer some pretty extensive curative properties.
Recent scientific studies have proven the blueberry to have a multitude of healthful benefits. Research shows promise for using blueberry extract to improve balance, coordination and memory, and it may be used as an aid for those with Alzheimer’s disease in the future. Studies report that both wild and cultivated blueberries are found to be effective in inhibiting certain types of prostate cancer. The berries contain compounds that may protect against cardiovascular disease and help to reduce cholesterol.
In short, eating blueberries can improve vision, clear arteries, protect against disease, strengthen blood vessels, enhance memory, stop urinary tract infections, improve age-related physical and mental ability, and promote weight control. All that packed into a great-tasting little berry!
Blueberries in your backyard
For the Backyard Fruit Enthusiast, growing blueberries can be a rewarding experience with some time and effort. Homemade blueberry preserves, pies and muffins, or a fresh, juicy handful of summertime goodness plucked from the bush await those willing to put in a bit of work. Careful planning when blueberries are planted, and a little maintenance thereafter, pays off for years to come. The bushes are long-lived; they can produce fruit for 20 to 40 years if cared for well. Young bushes will yield fruit, but it may take them between eight and 12 years to reach full production. However, enthusiasm for the backyard grower can quickly turn to frustration if specific growing conditions are not met.
Choosing a proper site is the first step in ensuring your blueberry bushes will both thrive and provide you with berries. Though blueberry bushes will tolerate some shade, a bush in the sun will produce more berries; choose a location with at least six hours of sunlight per day. Avoid low areas and frost pockets; the colder air that accumulates in these locations can injure or kill flower buds and cause stem dieback. Winter temperatures that reach 25 below zero and late spring frosts can be equally damaging to stems and flower buds.
Blueberries prefer either a sandy soil or a sandy loam. Incorporating organic matter, such as peat, to help retain moisture is a good practice. Blueberry bushes have thin, fibrous roots that lie close to the surface, so watering frequently throughout the summer, and especially during dry spells, is a must; growth of the plant and fruit yields are reduced greatly during droughts.
Blueberries require acidic soil; they prefer a pH level between 4.5 and 5.0. For best results, perform a soil test before planting and amend the soil as required. Soil test kits are available at most nurseries; contact your local county extension agency for more complete tests. If soil test results indicate a pH above 5.5, garden sulfur or aluminum sulfate can be added according to package instructions to lower the pH and acidify the soil.
Blueberries benefit from fertilizing with a good, slow-release fertilizer formulated for acid-loving plants. Apply in the spring and again in the fall after the leaves have dropped. Espoma’s Hollytone is an excellent choice for the organic gardener.
Bees pollinate blueberries, and the plants are self-fruitful and do not require cross-pollination. Studies have proven, though, that planting two or more varieties produces larger berries and higher yields.
Beauty as well as benefit
As an ornamental shrub,blueberry bushes have a lot to offer. Taken out of the “soldiers standing in formation” setting that is typical of fruit plantings and placed among other shrubs and perennials, blueberries are a wonderful addition to any home landscape. In spring, graceful, creamy-white, bell-shaped flowers droop from slightly arching branches before the berries begin to form. A blueberry farm in autumn is a feast of color; a fiery mix of crimson, burgundy and orange blazes from row after row. In the ornamental garden, mass plantings provide an eye-popping, gorgeous fall display, or single bushes give a splash of color and look especially beautiful with a backdrop of evergreens.
Thoreau sums up beautifully this wonderful gift that nature offers. “Great blueberries, as big as old-fashioned bullets, alternated or were closely intermingled with the crimson holly-berries and black chokeberries, in singular contrast yet harmony, and you hardly knew why you selected those only to eat, leaving the others to the birds … it is only in some late year that you stumble on some of these places in your neighborhood and stand surprised on the edge of a blueberry preserve, as retired and novel as if it were a thousand miles removed from your ordinary walks, as far off as Persia from Concord.”
Whether grown for its fruit or as an ornamental, blueberries are one of nature’s little gems.
Cindy Murphy lives in South Haven, Michigan, the self-proclaimed Blueberry Capital of the World and home of the National Blueberry Festival. She is an Advanced Master Gardener, Michigan Certified Nurseryman, and she blogs for Grit about life in West Michigan.
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