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Jane's Garden 6/22/14: Harvest time for blueberries

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There are about 450 species of Vaccinium native to the Northern Hemisphere from the arctic to the tropics. Vacciniums are commonly called blueberry, cranberry, deerberry, bilberry, huckleberry, sparkleberry or whortleberry. All are edible; some are sweeter or tarter than others. Full of micronutrients and antioxidants, some are grown commercially for their small fruits covered with a waxy bloom.

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Shiny Blueberry, V. myrsinites, is prevalent in the Sandhills ecosystem from Brooksville to Gainsville, zones 8-10, is an evergreen, understory shrub that forms colonies from underground runners. It is a critical food source for birds and native wildlife. Shiny Blueberry is disease- and pest-free, needs no supplemental irrigation after establishment and is frost-hardy throughout Florida.

American Cranberry, V. macrocarpon, needs a long, cold winter in zones 2-9. It does not grow in Florida — winters are not cold or long enough and summers are too hot. Cranberries form a ground-hugging mat of interlocking stems in wet bogs in the northeast.

In Florida, Vaccinium prefers well-drained but moist, humus-rich soil that is very acidic, pH 5.5 to 4.5. Commercial varieties flower best and produce more fruit in full sun but are tolerant of high filtered shade, such as under Longleaf Pine trees. 

Two cultivated blueberries readily available in Florida are Southern Highbush, V corymbosum and Rabbiteye, V. vigatum. Neither are self-fruitful, so you need two varieties of either to ensure cross pollination.

There are many named Highbush varieties, including ‘Sharpblue’ released by Professor Ralph Sharpe of the University of Florida in 1976. Patented releases including ‘Star’ (1975), ‘Windsor (2001), ‘Jewel’ (1999). ‘Gulf Coast’ and ‘Emerald’ (1999) ripen from mid-April to late May locally. Fruit can be damaged by a late winter frost in the north part of Central Florida.

The Highbush developed for Central Florida needs lower chill hours than Rabbiteye. Once the chill requirements are met, Highbush blueberries flower about March locally.

Rabbiteyes need more chill hours below 40 degrees, so they flower about a month later. If they get the required chill hours, Rabbiteye fruit will ripen a month later than Southern Highbush varieties. Highbush can grow 12 feet tall, so it is pruned to about 3 feet after harvest.

Flowers are white with a slight pink blush, bell-shaped and borne in clusters. Bees do most of the pollination. Having flowering vines like Yellow Jessamine and Coral Honeysuckle nearby will attract pollinators at the right time for blueberries.

I thought I had missed the blueberry harvest, as I was in Canada in May. But Don Skiles of Cross Bayou farms in Holder had a bumper crop on rows of ‘Emerald’ and ‘Gulf Coast.’ You can reach Don at 352-287-2796.

I picked shopping bags full and spent several days processing the luscious fruit. I bought four boxes of a dozen mason jars, two jars of powdered fruit pectin, a 7.5 ounce jar of dry citric acid, white cane sugar and some lemon juice. Baking supplies included flour, sunflower oil, coconut oil, baking soda and powder, chopped pecans, salt and eggs.

Washing, stemming, draining and freezing whole blueberries in 2 cup sandwich bags took longer than the picking. Double-bagging two sandwich bags in a quart freezer bag prevents freezer burn.

Cracking blueberry skins in a vat of boiling water for two minutes lowers dehydrating time from 18 to 10 hours. Three cups of fresh blueberries yields one snack bag full of dried blueberries. The dark juice from the cracking was full of antioxidants and nutrients, so I bottled it in sterilized mason jars to use as a fruit juice concentrate.

Making blueberry jam involved crushing the berries and measuring the pulp. Adding the correct amount of sugar and the “reduced sugar” fruit pectin made the boiling berries gel. A spoonful of boiling jam was tested for set on a saucer chilled in the freezer.

After confirming it could set, the hot jam was poured into tempered, sterilized hot mason jars and promptly sealed. The lids popped down as the fruit cooled and created a vacuum in the jars.

Peaches and nectarines ripen at the same time as blueberries locally. They also make fine jam, preserves, nectars, juices, baked goods and dried fruit slices.

I baked blueberry muffins, fruit cobbler and blueberry-pecan loaves to share with the staff at Cross Bayou. It takes about four years for blueberry bushes to mature enough for a full crop. The young bushes in my edible garden will hopefully produce well next year.

Jane Weber is a professional gardener and consultant. Semi-retired, she grows thousands of native plants. Visitors are welcome to her Dunnellon, Marion County, garden. For an appointment, call 352-249-6899 or contact JWeber12385@gmail.com.