Blueberry identification is ‘difficult at best’
“It’s football time in Tennessee!” is what John Ward, the long-time announcer for the University of Tennessee, used to declare when the opening kickoff of the season was airborne.
“It’s blueberry picking time in Western North Carolina!” would also be appropriate for this time of the year.
And it’s also the time of year when readers email or call asking how to tell a high bush blueberry from a low bush blueberry.
Recognizing a blueberry shrub by its leaves, twigs, flowers and fruit isn’t usually a problem. But identifying the specific sort of blueberry can be, for me, a tricky assignment.
Some years ago I spent a week compiling a checklist of the plants on East Ship Island, situated 10 miles off the Mississippi coast in the Gulf of Mexico. Because of the limited number of species on the island, I was able to compile a nearly complete checklist of the trees, shrubs, vines, herbs (wildflowers), ferns and clubmosses with some confidence. To my surprise, it was the blueberries that stumped me.
Most of the time, there seemed to be two apparent species. But I kept finding intermediate types, so that I was never quite sure where to draw the line.
At times, in exasperation, I’d lump them all together as one species; at other times, I’d regain my taxonomic composure and divide them up into as many as four species.
I returned to the mainland suspecting that I’d not be the fellow who’d solve that island’s blueberry problem.
Subsequently, I read a note by Leonard Foote and Sam Jones in Native Shrubs and Woody Vines of the Southeast (1989) that read: “Blueberries of the genus ‘Vaccinium’ are a complex assemblage of a number of polymorphic groups, some possible hybrids, and variable individuals (so that) for many species identification is difficult at best.”
Difficult at best!
Here in the Smokies region, we have seven or so plant species classified as “Vacciniums.” If you’re looking for a plant identification problem area to fiddle with in your spare time, take up blueberries as a taxonomic hobby.
But I have decided that life is short and there are other things to do. These days I am quite content with the self-imposed notion that there are two recognizable blueberry “categories.”
Taxonomically, this system is simple: (1) “lowbush blueberries” grow in knee-high thickets and spread by underground stems called rhizomes; and (2) “highbush blueberries” are medium-sized shrubs or a small trees that send up new shoots each year from a central crown.
Credit me with saving you from the blueberry identification blues. If someone comes along and asks what sort of blueberries you’re gathering, you look at them and say “highbush” (if the plant is over two feet high) or “lowbush” (if the plant is under two feet high). It’s quite likely the questioner will be satisfied and go away.
Blueberries grow in a variety of habitats ranging from bogs to dry roadsides. One of the more popular areas to gather them is in open meadows along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
These sites are sometimes called “blueberry barrens” by ecologists. But there’s nothing barren about them at all in regard to either scenery or gastronomic delight.
Blueberries are good eaten directly from the bush or as jams, pancakes and jellies. But, in my opinion, the best way to serve them is in a pie. It’s virtually certain when someone pulls a crispy steaming blueberry pie out of the oven you won’t give a tinker’s damn as to which species you’re going to be eating.