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  A Publication of UVM Extension's Vermont Vegetable and Berry Program

Health and History of Highbush Blueberries

by Vern Grubinger
Vegetable and Berry Specialist
University of Vermont Extension

Doctors across the country may soon be prescribing lots of little blue pills, and I don't mean Viagra. They'll be advising patients to eat blueberries, because it turns out that this fruit not only tastes good, it's also good for your health. Researchers have found blueberries to be higher in anti-oxidants than any other fruit or vegetable tested. By combating free-radicals in our bodies, anti-oxidants help protect against cancer and delay the aging process. But that's not all, there's evidence that blueberries can reduce urinary tract infections and protect against heart disease, too. One study even found that fighter pilots who were given regular doses of blueberries had significantly improved night vision. Could blueberry pancakes become a military secret?

Centuries ago, native Americans knew that blueberries were good for treating stomach problems, but they were limited to eating wild blueberries. Also called low-bush blueberries, these wild plants grow naturally on acid soils, producing fruit that is quite small on plants that only grow about a foot tall. The domesticated, or highbush blueberry produces bigger berries, and more of them, on a plant that grows nearly ten times taller than its wild cousin. The domestication of the blueberry started in 1908 when a researcher at the US Department of Agriculture, Dr. F.V. Coville, began studying wild blueberries and seeking out superior plants for breeding. He made his first selection of plants in New Hampshire. In 1911, he lucked out when Elizabeth White, a commercial cranberry grower in New Jersey, learned of his work and perceived its potential. She offered her assistance, and for the next 2 decades she enlisted her pickers to search for exceptionally fine bushes in the wilds of the pine barrens.

Dr. Coville made crosses among the best of these, and highbush blueberry industry was born. He developed the first 15 commercial varieties of blueberries, and many more followed as a result of his work. In 1937, a Vermonter took over the USDA blueberry breeding program. Dr. George Darrow initiated cooperation with state agricultural experiment stations and private growers, so that new varieties could be tested in widely different growing areas. Between 1946 and 1962, he provided over 200,000 seedling plants to cooperators in 13 states. One of these cooperators was his brother Bill, who ran Green Mountain Orchards in Putney.

The first highbush blueberries in Vermont were planted in 1948, according to Bill Darrow, Jr. "Dad put in 30 or 40 bushes at first. By 1950 he was growing 4 varieties. He tried different ways of feeding them, and lost quite a few in the process. Eventually he got things squared away, so we cleared the pines off Round Hill, hauled in sawdust from the mill, and planted a couple of acres. We started in 1952 but it took 3 years to get enough seedlings to finish the planting."
Across town, another apple grower, Frank Harlow, was also experimenting with blueberries. "Uncle Frank was a researcher at heart" says Don Harlow, who has grown fruit for 50 years at Harlow's Sugar House. In 1963, Don and his wife Maddy put in their first acre of highbush blueberries, the second commercial planting in the state. Today, each farm boasts about 15 acres of blueberries, and Putney remains the blueberry capital of Vermont.

Elsewhere, word has gotten out about highbush blueberries. They are now grown far and wide, all the way to Japan. Closer to home, 1998 may be one of the best blueberry years ever. There's a huge crop in most locations. Pick soon, and pick often. Freezing the berries doesn't diminish their health benefits, so put some up and enjoy them later. A bowl of blueberries a day keeps the doctor away!

Published: June 1998
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