Capturing and cloning our blueberry bushes
In the book Blueberries for Sal, a young girl and her mother go blueberry picking in the countryside, sharing the hillside with a couple of bears. The fact that the blueberries were growing wild wasn’t just a way to work bears into the plot, as in 1948 when the book was published blueberries weren’t widely cultivated. Reliable breeds of blueberries weren’t available at all until 1916, and that was only after years of concentrated, methodical effort to transform them into a more consistent crop.
The catch in farming blueberries is finding soil awful enough for them. Wild blueberries do well in acidic, difficult soil, which means that most people’s attempts to plant them in their gardens failed. In 1910, Elizabeth Coleman White was reading about blueberries and realized they’d probably be a good match for the land her family owned in New Jersey, because those conditions sounded just like Newark! Actually, her family was already growing cranberries, which also did well in acidic, bog-like environments and so blueberries seemed like a good opportunity.
Bringing bushes in from the wild
White enlisted help from the US Department of Agriculture, who send botanist Frederick Coville out to help. Coville treated White’s farm like a lab, where different bushes were found, tended, then bred and and in some cases, cloned. Today, cloned plants from some of these original cuttings still produce fruit, ensuring that a consistent fruit has been available at harvest for the last hundred years.
Ku-plink, ku-plank… ku-whoosh!
Today, blueberries are grown in many places around the world as demand continues to grow. Berries are now scanned and sorted by cameras to ensure the proper blue coloration. Berries that fail that test are pushed off the conveyor belts by a strong puff of air before being packaged or frozen for shipment. New plants have bred to be a little more flexible about their soil, leading to farms as far south as Florida. From the original batch of plants, small enough to be named after the individuals who found them in the woods, blueberries are now available around the globe, year-round.
Source: How New Jersey Tamed The Wild Blueberry For Global Production by Dan Charles, The Salt