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Vaccinium is a genus of around 500 species of deciduous and evergreen dwarf, prostrate, or erect shrubs, vines, and trees in the Ericaceae (heath family) that includes blueberries (highbush blueberry, V. corymbosum is source of many commercial cultivars, and lowbush and rabbiteye blueberries, V. angustifolium and V. ashei, respectively, are also commercially important, but there are numerous other wild blueberry species), cranberries (V. macrocarpon, the primary commercial species, as well as V. oxycoccus), lingonberries or cowberries (V. vitis-idaea), and bilberries or whortleberries (V. myrtillus and others; the names “blueberry” and “bilberry” are used interchangeably for various species). Some Vaccinium species are also referred to as huckleberries, but that name is generally reserved for Gaylusaccia species, which produce a fruit similar to blueberries but with seeds enclosed in hard, stony coverings (although as with any common name, there are regional variations).

Most Vaccinium species are native to the Northern Hemisphere, with the greatest concentration of species in North America and eastern Asia. They often grow in temperate to cold temperate climates, although there are species that extend into mountainous tropical areas, and lower latitudes to countries including Mexico, the West Indies, Central America, and northern South America.

In North America, Vaccinium species are often associated with bogs and other wet areas, although many species grow in dry, upland areas. They can tolerate the acidic conditions that may develop in either type of setting. North American Vaccinium species 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 also 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 and cranberries occurred only during the past 100 years, making these two of the most recently domesticated fruit crops.

The economic importance of Vaccinium species is hard to ascertain, as many fruits are wild-harvested for local, rather than commercial use. However, 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. Production of cranberries was higher, an estimated 394,606 metric tons in 2010, harvested from 22,444 hectares. The U.S. was responsible for 78% of the total, and Canada produced 19%, with considerably smaller harvests in Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Latvia, among others.

Within the U.S., Wisconsin and Massachusetts are the leading cranberry producers, responsible for 58% and 28%, respectively, of the U.S. harvest, followed by New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington. Blueberry cultivation is more widely distributed; 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.

(Bailey et al. 1976, FAOSTAT 2012, Flora of North America 2012, Hedrick 1919, Martin et al. 1951, NASS 2011, USDA 2012, van Wyk 2005.)

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