Born in the U.S.A.: Blueberries

Happy Independence Day! What could be more all-American than native plants? We don't know.
That's why we're featuring species with red, white, or blue flowers or fruit this week, so stay tuned!

Figure 1. Vaccinium myrsinites in FL
By Steven W. Woodmansee, FNPS President

While shopping at my local grocery store in Kendall, I bought some blueberries to make a pie. I was surprised at how expensive they were, even when on sale ($2.50/half pint). Unaware that blueberries were grown commercially in Florida, I was even more startled when I read on the label that these were from Winter Haven (near Orlando). After thinking about it, it seemed fairly reasonable, especially given how many native species occur here. I am uncertain what species of blueberry I purchased (they were delicious), but was reminded of a blueberry which is found in almost every county in the state (Figure 1).  

Figure 2. Shiny blueberry flowers
Blueberries are in the heath family (Ericaceae), a temperate plant family whose species usually grow in acidic, nutrient poor, soils. Thirty-three species in the Ericaceae can be found in Florida, five of which are in the genus Vaccinium, the taxonomic group in which blueberries are found.

Vaccinium myrsinites, or shiny blueberry, grows to about 2 feet in height, and possesses a profusion of urn-shaped flowers that hang down and are white with hues of pink (Figure 2). Fruits are dark-blue to black when ripe and measure ¼ inch across (Figure 3). Mature fruits are quite tasty, and for some reason, they are better tasting when exposed to sunlight on the plant. Leaves are less than ½ inch long (Figure 4) and have stalked glands apparent when viewed with a loupe (hand lens). Shiny blueberry possesses underground stems that spread horizontally, creating patches of plants.

Figure 3. (inset) Shiny blueberry fruit
Figure 4. V. myrsinites in the landscape
In Miami-Dade County, where I live, shiny blueberry grows in sandy pockets of pine rockland, mesic flatwoods, and scrubby flatwoods plant communities. Plants need full sun, and are difficult to grow unless soils are non-alkaline. If you are fortunate to obtain a plant, it is recommended that when cultivating it in your yard here, be sure to grow it in acidic sandy soil, and to not water it with well or tap water which are too alkaline for its tastes. Rather, use rainwater, or if not available, distilled water. As with all pineland plants, mulch is not recommended, but pine needles may be used to help acidify the soil. Although not a commonly cultivated species, it would make a great addition to one’s yard where appropriate conditions occur. It is particularly useful in pineland restoration projects.

Instead of bringing watermelon, a native of Africa, to your Independence day celebration, consider putting blueberries on the menu. Blueberry season is almost over. Close it out with a bang while watching fireworks and enjoying the wonderful harvest that native Florida has to offer.


Image sources
Figure 1: Species distribution
Figure 2: Flowers, Photo credit: Shirley Denton
Figure 3: Fruit, Photo credit: Malcolm Manners
Figure 4: Leaves, Photo Credit: Pat Howell

Formatted and illustrated by Laurie Sheldon.


Cammie Donaldson said…
FNPS member Paul Lyrene, known as the Blueberry Man (and immortalized in the Palmetto magazine years ago thanks to the efforts of then-editor Peggy Lantz) was inducted into the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame in February 2011 for his contributions to Florida blueberry industry.

Native blueberry plants are available at many native nurseries and two nurseries, Green Isle Gardens in Groveland and Island Grove Ag Products in Hawthorne, also sell the fruit! Green Isle Gardens is developing an organic u-pick blueberry operation.
Thanks for the scoop, Cammie! -L
Trees said…
Very interesting post, thanks for sharing.
Our pleasure. Thanks for the feedback!

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