Vaccinium corymbosum, blueberry or highbush blueberry, sometimes known as whortleberry, is a deciduous shrub in the Ericaceae (heath family) that is native to eastern North America and is the source of most commercially cultivated blueberries and blueberry varieties, and is now cultivated in temperate regions of Europe and New Zealand, as well as North America.
Other commercially important species of blueberries include the lowbush blueberry, V. angustifolium, which is the source of many wild-harvested blueberries in Canada and Maine, and rabbiteye blueberry, V. ashei, which is cultivated in the southeastern U.S. There are also numerous other wild blueberry species, some of which are may also be called bilberries, although the name bilberry often refers specifically to V. myrtillus.
V. corymbosum is a shrub that can reach heights of nearly 7 m (15 ft), although generally grows to 1.5 m (5 ft) in cultivated varieties and typical sites. The alternate, simple leaves are oval to elliptical, up to 8 cm (3 in) long. The white to pinkish campanulate (bell-shaped) or tubular 4-parted flowers are borne in lateral clusters of several flowers each. The fruits are berries that ripen to blue or blackish purple, sometimes with a glaucous bloom (waxy coating), and are around 1.5 cm (5/16 in) in diameter, larger than many wild blueberry species; recently developed cultivars may have even bigger fruit.
Blueberries are rich dietary sources of vitamins C and K and the mineral manganese, are eaten fresh and prepared in juices, jams and jellies, syrups, sorbets, and compotes, as well as popular baked goods including muffins and pies. They may also be preserved by freezing or drying.
V. corymbosum typically grows in bogs or bog edges and wet sandy places, or in hummocks in tamarack swamps (Larix laricina) or fens, and rarely in drier uplands; it tolerates the acidic conditions typical of these areas. North American Vaccinium species, including the widespread V. corymbosum, are an important food source for numerous species of mammals and birds, and are estimated to make up 2 to 5% of the diet of 57 species.
Vaccinium species were an important food source for native peoples of North America for many centuries, but were generally wild-harvested, sometimes in managed stands, rather than cultivated. The development of cultivated varieties of blueberries occurred only since the late 1800s, making this one of the most recently domesticated fruit crops.
The FAO estimates that the total commercial harvest of blueberries (of all species) in 2010 was 312,047 metric tons, harvested from 74,649 hectares worldwide. The U.S. was the leading producer, generating 60% of the harvest, while Canada contributed another 27%, followed by Poland and Germany. Within the U.S., Michigan is the leading producer of cultivated blueberries, with 25% of the 2010 crop, while other states with significant harvests include Georgia, Oregon, New Jersey, and Washington. Maine has a large blueberry industry, but it is primarily based on wild-harvested, rather than cultivated, berries. These figures likely underestimate the full economic importance of blueberries, as many fruits are wild-harvested for local, rather than commercial use.
(Bailey et al. 1976, FAOSTAT 2012, Flora of North America 2012, Hedrick 1919, Martin et al. 1951, USDA 2012, van Wyk 2005.)
- Bailey, L.H., E.Z. Bailey, and the L.H. Bailey Hortatorium. 1976. Hortus Third: A concise dictionary of plants cultivated in the United States and Canada. New York: Macmillan. p. 1129.
- FAOSTAT. 2012. Searchable online statistical database from Food and Agriculture Division of the United Nations. Retrieved 10 July 2012 from http://faostat.fao.org/site/567/DesktopDefault.aspx?PageID=567#ancor.
- Flora of North America. 2012 45. Vaccinium Linnaeus, Sp. Pl. 1: 349. 1753; Gen. Pl. ed. 5, 166. 1754.Flora of North America8: 515. Accessed 12 July 2012 online: http://efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=1&taxon_id=134285.
- Hedrick, U.P., ed. 1919. Sturtevant’s Notes on Edible Plants. State of New York. Dept of Agriculture. 27th annual report, vol. 2, part II. Albany, NY: J.B. Lyon Co. pp. 585–588.
- Martin, A.C., H.S. Zim, and A.L. Nelson. 1951. American wildlife & plants a guide to wildlife food habits: the use of trees, shrubs, weeds, and herbs by birds and mammals of the United States. Prepared for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Dept. of Interior. New York: Dover. pp. 356–358.
- USDA. 2012. U.S. Blueberry Industry. Economics, Statistics, and Market Information System, Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Accessed 12 July 2012 online from http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/MannUsda/viewDocumentInfo.do?documentID=1765..
- van Wyk, B.-E. 2005. “Vaccinium corymbosum” “Vaccinium macrocarpon,” and “Vaccinium myrtillus.” Food Plants of the World: An Illustrated Guide. Portland, OR: Timber Press. p. 373–375.
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