The Wild Gardener

In front of a friend’s house up in Spruce Pine, there grow an amazing assortment of good old blueberries. So many burst forth that when the fruit is ripe, they always have a bear or two rambling by for a homegrown treat.

The amazing thing about native blueberries is their unfussy attitude, including their ability to survive very acid soil and tolerate lots of clay, asking only that the ground is moist and there’s plenty of sun.

The scientific name of for these shrubs is Vaccinium, a word derived from an old Latin name, of disputed origin, used by both Virgil and Pliny. The genus comprises more than 130 species of deciduous and evergreen shrubs and, rarely, small trees. Most are found in the northern hemisphere, with the highest number of species coming from North America and East Asia. They have considerable economic importance in the United States and Canada, where thousands of acres of otherwise barren land with acid soil are used to cultivate them. The fruits find their way into pies, jams, sauces and preserves, and nothing can beat a bowl of fresh blueberries and cream. The genus includes the bilberry, the whortleberry, the deer berry, and the farkleberry (if anybody knows the derivation of the latter fruit, please let me know!).

Until recently, however, growing blueberries in pots (for both decoration and for fruit) just wasn’t possible. Then, last year, a new blueberry cultivar was developed by hybridizing a native Southern species (Vaccinium darrowi) with a Northern high-bush species (V. corymbosum). Needing only 200 to 300 hours of 45 F temperatures, these new bushes can grow as far south as central Florida and still produce excellent fruit.

‘Sunshine Blue’ is a dense, rounded, semi-dwarf blueberry growing between 3 and 4 feet high, with silvery leaves that remain evergreen through the winter. It bears pink flowers in the spring. If this were not enough, it is self-pollinating (you need only one to produce fruit), is tolerant to a higher pH than the average blueberry (which dotes on acidic soil), and bears dime-sized, dark-blue berries with a great flavor. It needs only 150 hours of chilling and is still hardy as far north as Chicago (below USDA Zone 5, container plants must be protected by trenching or kept in a warmer environment). Provide a good, humus-y soil, and remember that blueberries need moist, but not wet, soil. Finally, remember that when pruning, berries are produced on the previous year’s wood, so too much cutting will mean no fruit for the coming season.

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