Saving Blueberries

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Blueberries are popular and versatile, but the berry would not be where it is today without the efforts of ARS researchers.
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Fruit cluster of Draper, a cultivar released by Michigan State University and named in honor of Arlen Draper, a long-time blueberry breeder wtih ARS in Beltsville, Maryland.
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Plant geneticist Mark Ehlenfeldt, left, and plant pathologist James Polashock examine blueberry plants to collect data on mummy berry fruit infection in order to evalutate resistance.
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ARS researchers in Corvallis, Oregon, are developing and improving blueberries for the Pacific Northwest. Elliott blueberry plants, as seen here, are in full bloom.
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A close-up of blueberry flowers.
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Horticulturist Donna Marshall measures blueberry firmness to determine the correlation between fruit firmness and susceptibility to fruit splitting.

Familiar
blueberries and their lesser-known wild relatives are safeguarded by U.S.Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists and curators at America’s
official blueberry genebank. The plants, collected from throughout the United States and more than two dozen foreign
countries, are growing at the USDA Agricultural Research Service NationalClonal Germplasm Repository in Corvallis,
Oregon. 

The blueberries
are maintained as outdoor plants, potted greenhouse and screenhouse specimens,
tissue culture plantlets, or as seeds, according to research leader Kim E.
Hummer.

The genebank’s
purpose is to ensure that these plants, and the diverse genepool that they
represent, will be protected for future generations to grow, enjoy, study and
improve. For example, plant breeders can use plants in the collection as
parents for new and even better blueberries for farm or garden.

Blueberries and
several other small berries are among the fruit, nut and specialty crops housed
at the Corvallis
repository, which in turn is part of a nationwide, ARS-managed network of plant
genebanks.

Likely the most
comprehensive of its kind in the United States, the blueberry
collection nevertheless continues to expand, Hummer says. Some acquisitions,
referred to as accessions, are donations from breeders. Others are acquired
through collecting expeditions, which have taken plant explorers to Russia, China,
Ecuador and Uruguay, among other places, as well as
throughout the United States
to find new blueberry plants for the repository.

The collection
includes species of wild blueberries native to the Pacific
Northwest that have pigmented flesh or pulp. Some breeders are
trying to breed some of these species into the familiar highbush blueberry that
has a white interior, Hummer says.

If breeders can
put color on the inside of berries through cross-breeding the internal-color
berry plants with highbush plants, the breeders may be able to produce a berry
that gives fuller color to processed blueberry jams, jellies, juices and dried
or frozen fruit.

Other prized
specimens at the genebank may someday become landscaping favorites. One
example: low-growing Vaccinium praestans from
Russia, China and Japan. Also known as redberry
Kraznika or rock azalea, it could make an interesting, attractive ground cover
that comes complete with edible fruit.

Read more about
this and other blueberry research in the May/June 2011 issue of AgriculturalResearch magazine. ARS is the USDA’s chief intramural scientific research
agency.