The Ericaceae family contains many beautiful and useful useful plants, including rhododendron, mountain laurel (Kalmia), the sourwood tree (Oxydendrum), andromeda (Pieris) and common heather (Erica). Some of the most popular family members are the highbush and lowbush blueberries, both members of the genus Vaccinium, first described by Carl Linnaeus in 1753. The two species are native to North America. Highbush blueberries have been extensively hybridized, and world production of the tasty blue fruits is around 42,000 metric tons annually. Other members of the genus Vaccinium are cranberries, bilberries and lingonberries.
Wild highbush blueberries
Wild highbush blueberries are found in the eastern half of the United States. The shrubs are upright, with many branches, reaching from 6 to 12 feet tall and nearly as wide. The leaves are oval-shaped and dark green during the growing season. In the fall, the leaves turn brilliant shades of red and red-orange. The clusters of bell-shaped flowers appear in May and are white with a pinkish tinge. They give way to small, sour berries that can be as large as 1/2 inch. Wild specimens can generally be found growing in the relatively moist, acid soil that also supports other Ericaceae family members like native rhododendrons.
Domestic Highbush Blueberries
Breeders have long crossed Vaccinium corymbosum, the highbush blueberry, with its relative, the southern rabbit-eye blueberry, to produce larger, tastier fruit for commercial purposes. The shrubs resemble their wild relatives in leaf size, color, fall color and blossom attributes, but have larger, sweeter fruit. Scores of varieties are available commercially, including varieties that bear fruit in the early, middle and latter parts of the blueberry season, which usually runs from late June through early August.
Wild Lowbush Blueberries
Vaccinium angustifolium, the lowbush blueberry, grows wild throughout Canada and as far south as the mountains of New York and New Hampshire. It is a sprawling, open shrub, that tops out at 2 feet tall and sprawls at least that far. Its leaves are smaller than those of the highbush blueberry; only 3/4 inches long and lance-shaped. Lowbush blueberry leaves also color brilliantly in the fall. The small, five-lobed flowers are white tinged with pink. Lowbush blueberries, unlike wild highbush varieties, are sweet.
Domestic Lowbush Blueberries
Breeders at the University of Maine at Orono have developed several varieties of lowbush blueberry for ornamental purposes.These are spreading, ground-covering plants that grow only 7 inches tall. The Canadian government has also developed varieties for use in the commercial market.
Growing blueberries at home requires little except slightly acidic soil, regular moisture and a sunny space. For best fruiting, grow more than one bush. Newer dwarf varieties of V. corymbosum, like Sunshine Blue, produce full-size fruit in a smaller space and can even be grown in pots.