A native plant in North America, the tasty little blue fruits from the blueberry bush remain a favorite after centuries of use. While northern highbush blueberry plants do not fare well in extreme cold winter temperatures such as those found in the far northern regions, they do grow in climates where temperatures drop below zero degrees F. The plant's ability to grow in hardiness zones 3 to 9 allows most gardeners to enjoy the sweet flavor of these berries.
Eating native blueberries gathered from the wetlands and forests of the United States has been ongoing for centuries. Native Americans ate them fresh and also preserved them. The Wampanoag Indians showed the pilgrims how to dry the berries and use them in the winter. But it wasn't until the 1880s that growing blueberries in gardens and farms began.
Falling into the same family of plants as cranberries, azaleas and rhododendrons, northern highbush blueberries thrive in climates where winter temperatures do not drop below -25 degrees F. The plants feature beautiful green foliage with small light pink blossoms. The blossoms eventually form clusters of small green fruits that turn blue as they mature. In the fall, blueberry bushes turn into a blaze of color including reds, oranges and yellows, adding visual interest to landscapes.
A variety of northern highbush blueberry plants exist, each with different maturity dates. A few blueberries such as Earliblue, Patriot, Duke and Bluetta provide mature berries in early summer. Others, such as Legacy, Darrow and Brigitta, mature in late summer or early fall. Several varieties such as Elliott and Jersey provide berries through September. Gardeners need to watch for height, as most blueberries grow from 4 to 6 feet high. The Jersey, however, grows up to 8 feet tall.
Blueberries prefer acidic soil such as sandy loam soil with organic matter added. The soil needs to be well-drained with the bush planted in full sun. Also, protect the berries from the wind. Blueberry bushes grow best when they have another nearby bush for cross-pollination. Cross-pollination helps better set the fruit, resulting in a larger berry.
Blueberry bushes need pruning every year, which results in higher yields of good quality berries. The best time to prune is in late winter or early spring when the bush is still dormant. Pruning new plants simply requires removing dead branches and weak growth. Established plants require more pruning, including removal of canes that are at least six years old. This encourages new, more productive growth to flourish.