Propagating Highbush Blueberry Plants: Past, Present, and Future

History of the Highbush Blueberry propagation

The Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) is a native plant of North America and was a prized food of Native Americans. Some of the early European settlers (such as the New Jersey back woodsmen or “Pineys”) learned of the delicious Highbush Blueberry and would harvest their favorite bogs every summer.

Around 1900 Frederick Coville, a gifted scientist at the US Department of Agriculture, started research on domesticating Highbush Blueberries and published a small book on the subject. Around the same time Elizabeth Coleman White, a cranberry farmer in New Jersey, dreamed of cultivating Highbush Blueberries to add another berry crop to their farm. After reading Doctor Coville’s book, she invited him out to her family’s farm to support and continue his research.

They paid the Pineys a bounty for bushes that produced larger berries. These plants were collected, and cuttings of the plants were propagated into cloned plants. The cloned plants were the first blueberry cultivars (a cultivated variety). Cultivars have unique characteristics and are given a unique name. These first cultivars were named after the Pineys (such as Rubel, Sooy, Brooks, or Russell) that gathered the plants. Clones of the cultivars were grown to create the first blueberry fields, and in 1916 the world’s first commercial crop of Highbush was produced. Some of these cultivars can still be found today.

With the support of Miss Coleman’s farm, Doctor Coville continued his work, cross-pollinating the collected wild plants to produce new cultivars. By breeding together two different cultivars, which have different valued traits, a new cultivar can be created.  These new cultivar can be duplicated by growing cuttings to supply Highbush Blueberry plant for farms like ours.

Modern blueberry propagation

Cross-pollinating Highbush blueberries is long-term endeavor, requiring some work but mostly an investment in time. There have not been a large number of Highbush Blueberry cultivars created though cross-pollination since Doctor Coville’s work. Most of the new cultivars have been selected for traits valued by the industrial farms. The traits that allow berries to be mechanically harvested and shipped across the country have led to what we call the “industrial berry.” The taste of the berry was not a trait the industry values.  As a result, the industrial berry looks good in the grocery store, but its taste will leave you wishing for the berries you remember.

A common technique in modern plant culturing is hybridizing or breeding two different species together. When the two species are closely related, the hybridization is generally easy. However, when the species are not closely related, hybridizing is more difficult. The goal of hybridization is to combine the desired traits of two different species to produce offspring with both sets of the desired traits and with fruit that looks similar to the historical fruit. In the blueberry industry, factory farms want plants that can grow in less acidic soil, can grow in hotter climates, and need less days of cold weather (to trigger fruit production). They want plants that produce berries with synchronized ripening and produce very firm fruit that can withstand mechanized harvest. To achieve these characteristics, Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) plants were hybridized with other Vaccinium species that had the traits the industry desired.  However, they still had to produce fruit that looked like Highbush Blueberries for marketing purposes. The resulting hybrid plants that met these criteria were cloned in massive numbers to populate vast fields. Now these berries are commonly available in grocery stores across the country.

Propagating your own blueberry

A 3-year old plant that was grown from seed flowered and produced its first fruit. These plants will help ensure the future of the field is safe from industrialization.
The plants at Linbo Blueberry Farm are aging, which is a concern since we do not want to replace our plants with the “industrial” plants available today. Over the last couple years, we’ve been working on successfully growing blueberry plants from seed. By growing our own plants from seed, we can produce better plants by selecting for the trait we value the most: the taste of the fruit. We are following in Frederick Coville’s footsteps by cross-pollinating two cultivars of Highbush Blueberries to produce a new Highbush cultivar.

We have established a good system for propagating blueberry plants from seed, and have created a kit so you too can grow your own blueberry plant. (Kits are available during the u-pick season at the farm.) By following the instructions included in the kit and with a little diligence, you can have your own Highbush Blueberry plant that is selecting for traits that you think makes the best berry.  When using the kit to grow up the seeds from our field, you will be creating a new cultivar, which is what farmers have been doing since the beginning of agriculture. Like the Pineys, you can proudly put your name on your new blueberry cultivar - an amazing and unique experience in this modern food era.

Why the industrial blueberry is hard to propagated from seed

When choosing which blueberry seeds to try to grow, you can try to use seeds from any blueberry plant (in fact you can use seeds from many species of Vaccinium).  However, in this industrial world, trying to grow a blueberry plant from berries bought at the grocery store isn't as simple as it should be.

The modern industrial blueberry plant may not be pure Vaccinium corymbosum. Different species of Vaccinium have been hybridized to create fields of cloned plants that grow well under industrial farm’s conditions. The different species that are hybridized together may have different numbers of chromosomes and different gene placement, which can make propagating the offspring difficult.  When a successful hybrid with the desire characteristics is produced, the hybrid is cloned and further crossbreeding is avoided.  Hybrids may express the desired traits, but they still have unwanted traits, which are recessive or not expressed.  If a hybrid is cross-pollinated to another hybrid and the seeds are fertile, the unwanted traits could be expressed in the offspring.

Industrial blueberry farms tend to have a single blueberry cultivar or closely related cultivars so the berries will ripen at the same time to be mechanically harvested easily. In nature, plants are often not self-fertile, meaning they produce fertile seeds only if they have been crossed to a genetically different plant. In essence, the industrial field of clones is more like one big plant instead of a field of individuals. So the berries produced may not have fertile seeds.

The industrial blueberry farms use blueberry cultivars that grow big berries, which turn blue early in the season (e.g. Bluecrop).  However, these berries don’t actually ripen until later in the season. Before the berries have sugar and flavor, they are harvested and shipped to grocery stores. These unripe berries will also have unripe seeds that may grow poorly or fail to grow.

If you want to be successful at growing your own blueberry or Vaccinium plant, it is best to start with seeds that have the best chance of becoming a healthy productive plant. The best sources are seeds from plants that are non-hybrids, grown in a field made up of many genetically different plants, and from berries that are fully ripe.

Linbo Blueberry Farm
1201 South Fruitland, Puyallup, WA 98371
www.linboblueberries.com

page updated: 7/11/11