If you’ve ever been hiking or mountain climbing in New England, you might have seen blueberries growing on bushes and noted that those blueberries looked different from the ones sold at the local market.
It’s true, wild blueberries and cultivated blueberries are very different, though they also share several properties. Some of the ways in which wild blueberries are similar to cultivated blueberries are:
- Both grow on shrubs
- Both are dark blue or purple in color
- Both grow naturally in the colder areas of the United States
- Both are edible and a delicious ingredient in pies, jams, and other baked goods
- Both are members of the Vaccinium genus, which includes hundreds of other fruit-bearing shrubs
There are also several ways in which wild blueberries and cultivated blueberries are quite different from one another. Let’s explore some of those differences and learn where each grows, their history, appearance, taste, and cultivation!
Comparing Wild Blueberries to Cultivated Blueberries
|Wild Blueberries||Cultivated Blueberries|
|Scientific Name||Vaccinium angustifolium||Vaccinium corymbosum|
|Common Name||Wild lowbush blueberry||Northern highbush blueberry, blue huckleberry, swamp huckleberry, swamp blueberry|
|Origin||Eastern and Central Canada, Northeastern United States||Eastern Canada, Eastern and Southern United States|
|Description of Plant||The wild lowbush blueberry plant is a small shrub grows low to the ground, usually no bigger than two feet tall. The blueberry bush has leaves that are green or dark green-blue in the summer, and red or brown in the fall. The plant flowers with small, white, bell-shaped blossoms. The blueberries themselves are very small and dark blue or blackish-purple, usually growing to be 3/6 to ⅝ of an inch in diameter.||The northern highbush blueberry is a North American blueberry species, which has become one of the most commonly-cultivated blueberries. The plant is a shrub that grows to be between six and 12 feet tall, growing dark green leaves which turn red, orange, brown, or purple in the fall. The plant flowers with small white or pale pink blossoms. The blueberries themselves grow to be between ¼ inch and ½ inch in diameter.|
|Habitat||The wild lowbush blueberry grows in forested areas, fields, and exposed rock outcroppings found on hills or mountains. The plants thrive in full sun.||The northern highbush blueberry grows well in USDA hardiness Zones 4-8, with a hybridized version, the southern highbush blueberry, growing well in Zones 5-8. The blueberry bushes grow well in acidic soil with a pH between 4.5 and 5.5, planted 4 to 6 feet apart from each other in soil that is moist but has good drainage. Though the plants will survive in partial shade, they thrive in full sun.|
Descriptions of Wild Blueberries and Cultivated Blueberries
Both wild blueberries, Vaccinium angustifolium, and cultivated blueberries, Vaccinium corymbosum, are in the genus Vaccinium, family Ericaceae. The genus Vaccinium is a common genus of shrubs in the heath family (Ericaceae), and includes other fruit-bearing plants such as cranberry, bilberry, lingonberry, and huckleberry.
Vaccinium contains approximately 450 different species, including almost 150 varieties of blueberry and bilberry. However, among those, only about 30 blueberry varieties are significant. In general, the three major types of blueberry plants are Vaccinium angustifolium (wild lowbush blueberry), Vaccinium corymbosum (Northern highbush blueberry), and Vaccinium virgatum ( Southern black blueberry, rabbit-eye blueberry). Vaccinium angustifolium, the lowbush, is the most widespread and abundant wild blueberry, though several other species of wild blueberries can be found in North America. Similarly, Vaccinium corymbosum, the highbush, is one of multiple cultivated species of blueberry, but it’s the most commonly cultivated.
Description of Wild Blueberries
Vaccinium angustifolium, commonly known as the wild lowbush blueberry or simply the wild blueberry, is native to the Northeastern United States and Eastern Canada. In the United States, wild blueberries grow in New England states like New Hampshire and Maine, but can also be found in Northerly Midwestern states like Michigan. The wild blueberry thrives in rock outcroppings on New England mountains and glacial outwash plains. The fruit of the lowbush blueberry is small and sweet, dark blue or blackish-purple, possessing an intense blueberry flavor. Wild blueberries have less sugar and, according to the USDA, more antioxidants, fiber, and anthocyanins than their cultivated counterparts.
Description of Cultivated Blueberries
Vaccinium corymbosum, also known as the northern highbush blueberry and referred to in this article as a type of cultivated blueberry, is the most commonly-cultivated blueberry species in the world. The highbush blueberry has more than 50 different cultivars, which are now grown throughout the world and across the United States. In the United States, blueberries are primarily grown and harvested in Maine, Michigan, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington. These states have cold winters, for which blueberry shrubs are well-suited, as they are hardy bushes that prefer cooler temperatures. Some of this species’ cultivars have been developed to withstand warmer temperatures, producing varieties that grow well in warmer climates.
Compared to the lowbush blueberry plant, highbush blueberry plants yield fruit that is larger and plumper. Unfortunately, what these cultivars gained in size, they lost in flavor and health benefits. The flavor of cultivated blueberries is less intense than that of their wild counterparts, and each cultivated blueberry contains fewer antioxidants and less fiber, while containing more sugar.
Though wild blueberries and cultivated blueberries have many similarities, one thing they do not have in common is their histories. Wild blueberries and cultivated blueberries have quite different origins.
Wild Blueberries vs. Cultivated Blueberries: History
Historically, the first people to harvest wild blueberries on a widespread scale were the Wabanaki, People of the Dawnland, indigenous North Americans. The Wabanaki harvested wild blueberries for centuries, burning the wild blueberry plants each year to produce a higher yield the following year. The practice of burning is still used in wild blueberry cultivation to this day.
As early as the 1600s, European settlers in North America began to harvest and eat blueberries, primarily in New England where they thrive in the wild. Today, wild blueberries may still be found in parks and protected land areas, such as the rocky mountain outcroppings of Southern New Hampshire, as well as in backyards. The wild blueberries sold in grocery stores and at farmstands are grown by farmers who manage commercial wild blueberry land. In Maine, where wild blueberries are a significant crop, nearly 500 farmers cultivate wild blueberries across 36,000 acres, farming more than 105 million pounds of lowbush blueberries annually.
The cultivated blueberries grown today are a more recent creation. The first highbush blueberry plant was cultivated for commercial production only about 100 years ago, in the early 1900s. in only a century, cultivated blueberries have taken over, outpacing their wild cousins by a significant margin. Each year, farmers grow almost 1 billion pounds of cultivated blueberries in North America. The popularity of blueberries in recent years can be at least partially attributed to the last several decades of scientific research, which has promoted the nutritional benefits of eating blueberries and motivated many Americans to incorporate blueberries into their diets for the health benefits.
Wild Blueberries vs. Cultivated Blueberries: Appearance
Wild lowbush blueberry plants are small and grow close to the ground as shrubs that may be only a few inches tall or up to 2 feet tall. Each spring, the bushes are reinvigorated, with flower buds swelling and leaves budding. Eventually, green leaves emerge and flower buds expand. In the summer, the plant’s leaves will be dark green or blue-tinged, and the flowers will open and bloom, eventually revealing small green fruit. The green berries will expand, turn from green to pink to blue, and soften. At summer’s end, when they are at their ripest, the blueberries will turn deep blue or blackish-purple. They will be small, only about 3/16 of an inch in diameter. In the fall, the leaves turn dark red or brown.
In contrast, Northern highbush blueberry plants grow much taller, easily growing to be between six and 12 feet tall. The Northern highbush blueberry plant flowers with small white or pale pink blossoms. However, the resulting fruit is much bigger than their wild counterparts. Cultivated blueberries grow to be between ¼ inch and ½ an inch in diameter. Typically, the dark green leaves turn red, orange, brown, or purple in the fall.
Wild Blueberries vs. Cultivated Blueberries: Growing Conditions
Growing Conditions for Wild Blueberries
Lowbush blueberries spread by seed and through the growth of rhizomes. Growing wild blueberries requires thorough preparation of the soil, ensuring that the soil pH is between 4.5 and 4.8. The planting site should be free of weeds and grass.
The wild lowbush blueberry naturally grows in forested areas, fields, and exposed rock outcroppings found on hills or mountains. However, when intentionally cultivated, it is important to keep wild blueberries in nitrogen-rich soil and to refrain from over-harvesting. Though burning bushes at the end of their season is a traditional practice still used, pruning blueberry bushes periodically will stimulate higher future yields, as well.
Lowbush blueberries are a source of food for many feral animals living in the forests, fields, and mountains where wild blueberry bushes are found. The berries and leaves of the blueberry bush are eaten by animals including bears, raccoons, deer, and birds.
Growing Conditions for Cultivated Blueberries
Northern highbush blueberry plants grow well in USDA hardiness Zones 4-8.
However, a close relative, the Southern highbush blueberry, is adapted to grow well in USDA Zones 5-8. Like wild blueberries, cultivated blueberry bushes grow well in acidic soil. If growing Northern highbush blueberries, seek to plant them in soil with a pH between 4.5 and 5.5. From there, adjust the soil as needed to make it more acidic. Growing naturally, blueberry bushes are often found near water sources, but not where they are not at risk of becoming waterlogged. With that in mind, plant blueberry bushes 4 to 6 feet apart in soil that is moist but has good drainage.
Though your blueberry plants will survive in partial shade, they will thrive in full sun. Sunshine sweetens the fruit and brings out vibrant autumnal colors in the leaves.
In addition to wild animals such as birds, deer, rabbits, and squirrels, highbush blueberries are susceptible to a number of insect pests. These include aphids, spider mites, scale, caterpillars, and citrus thrips. The bushes also can contract a number of different diseases, such as cane and stem canker, iron chlorosis, and mummy berry.
Wild Blueberries vs. Cultivated Blueberries: Uses
Research regarding the health benefits derived from eating blueberries has led to increased consumption of this delicious fruit. Both wild and cultivated species have gained the title of superfoods or super fruits. Blueberries have anti-inflammatory qualities which reduce the risk of certain diseases. Evidence also suggests that these little berries contribute to positive gastrointestinal microflora, which infinitely improves gut health.
Blueberries are a sweet addition to fruit salads and desserts. They make sweet syrups and candies, and are also often a key ingredient in recipes for baked goods.
Cultivated blueberries represent most of the blueberries for sale in the United States. Wild blueberries comprise a much smaller piece of the market, due in part to the fact that farmers harvest wild blueberries by hand! Machines are not effective at harvesting wild blueberries, which grow in bushes low to the ground and often grow on rocky, uneven terrain. Unfortunately, hand-harvesting of wild blueberries is much more time-consuming than mechanical harvesting, which explains why wild blueberries are often wildly more expensive. However, because they are sweeter and more flavorful, than their cultivated counterparts, wild blueberries are preferred by serious bakers and connoisseurs for recipes in which a strong blueberry flavor is desired.
Though both wild and cultivated blueberries are delicious additions many different and varied dishes when compared with its counterpart the cultivated blueberry, the wild blueberry, though smaller and less abundant, is sweeter, more flavorful, and more healthful.
- Different Types of Edible Wild Berries You Can Safely Eat
- Different Types of Poisonous Berries To Avoid At All Costs
- Strawberries vs. Blueberries
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Maria Dryfhout/Shutterstock.com
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