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Blueberries: A Biography

The world’s commercial blueberries all have their roots in New Jersey

(Barrett & MacKay/All Canada Photos/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

New Jersey’s official state fruit is the blueberry, and there’s good reason for that. Every single highbush blueberry in commercial production around the world can trace its domestication back to the pine barrens of New Jersey.

Once, people only enjoyed blueberries that grew wild, but one cranberry farmer’s daughter figured out how to cultivate bushes that produced many berries. Nowadays, the blueberry business is booming: NPR's Dan Charles reports that global blueberry production has tripled in the past ten years. 

After reading a research report noting that blueberries needed acidic soil, Elizabeth White wrote to the USDA and offered to pay them to grow experimental blueberries on her family’s cranberry-bog-bearing land. The USDA sent botanist Frederick Coville to White's hometown of Whitesbog, New Jersey, and White asked locals to lead her to bushes with large berries. She would pay. Charles writes:

The pine people, as they were known, located 100 promising blueberry bushes. White named each one for the person who found it: Harding, Hanes, Rubel. (Rubel was actually found by a man named Rube Leek. White didn't think she should use Leek as a blueberry name, and "Rube" didn't seem polite, so they settled on "Rubel.")

Coville took cuttings from those promising bushes and also started cross-pollinating the berries. By 1916 they had large, uniform berries available to sell. Today, some of those original bushes still bear fruit in Whitesbog.

From there, the blueberry spread to other farmers. In Florida, plant breeders created new strains that could tolerate warmer climates. Now fresh blueberries come off fields across North American, south in Chile and Peru and even across the ocean in Europe.

These days, July is National Blueberry Month, and the USDA celebrated the blueberry's centennial at farmers' markets and blueberry festivals nationwide. But whether they're grown far or near, each blueberry you eat owes its genetics to the bushes cultivated by White and Coville in New Jersey.

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