Elizabeth White: The Blueberry Queen

Elizabeth Coleman White made it her life’s work to bring her beloved blueberries to the mainstream agricultural market.

| Winter 2016-2017

For two weeks in July, Brenda Conner leads visitors on tours through the oldest blueberry farm in the world. The farm is only an hour’s drive from Philadelphia, in the sparsely populated, sandy-soiled swamplands of southern New Jersey known as the Pine Barrens. Wild cranberries run along the bog banks, and blueberry clumps spring up untended in clearings between slim pines and oaks. The clapboard buildings with red roofs and white trim mark the place where the first cultivated blueberries were sorted for size and tasted for flavor before being propagated. Despite its proximity to the coastline, this area is worlds away from the Jersey Shore. 

On tour days, Conner tucks a long-sleeved, button-down shirt into the high waist of her ankle-length skirt and gets into character as the woman she calls “Aunt Lizzy.” To the rest of the world, Aunt Lizzy — also known as Elizabeth White — is the Blueberry Queen, the female horticulturalist who brought the blueberry from the wilderness into a global industry that sold 1 billion pounds of blueberries in 2014. 

The Woman Behind the Berry

Elizabeth White (1871-1954) was bright, energetic, and a brilliant speaker and writer. “She was a busy lady that didn’t let grass grow under her feet!” Conner wrote in an email. Some described Elizabeth as the son her father never had. Her father, Joseph White, pioneered the planting of cranberries in bogs, and in 1869, just two years before her birth, he wrote Cranberry Culture, a comprehensive guide to growing cranberries. As a child, Elizabeth often accompanied him out into the bogs, and it was from him that she inherited her lifelong passion for Pine Barren plants. “I always shirked the woman’s job of serving meals and instead stuck close to my father’s side, eager to hear all the cranberry talk,” Elizabeth admitted at a meeting of the Cranberry Growers Association in 1942, of which she was the first female member.

By 1893, when Elizabeth finished her classes as a proper young lady in sewing, hat-making, and first aid, her father’s company, J. J. White Inc., sprawled over a 3,000-acre area then called White’s Bog. She started working as a “bushel man” in charge of counting the pickers’ harvests, but she quickly became a business confidante to her father and an adept agricultural researcher. 

When the farm became infested with pestilent katydids, Elizabeth experimented with an insecticidal fungus culture, which led to collaboration with entomologist J. B. Smith. She later said that their work together “inspired a confidence in the possibility of scientific solutions of horticultural problems, without which I never could have undertaken the blueberry work.”

Blueberries had long been on her mind. Their season was timed perfectly to fill the gap between the strawberry harvest and the cranberry harvest. The tiny blues grew abundantly in the sandy beds between the cranberry bogs, space that was otherwise unused. Everyone in the Pine Barrens gathered “swamp huckleberries” to eat and sell by the thousands of quarts to bustling city markets in Boston and Philadelphia, but no one, not even four horticultural research stations in Maine, Rhode Island, New York, and Michigan, had managed to grow the berries on a commercial farm. The bushes withered when transferred to research sites, and some romantics had decided that the blues were proof that some things were too wild to be dominated by man. 

1/7/2018 7:45:23 AM

Pine needles and oak leaves will not acidify most soils, (I know from experience as well as from the research - www.gardenmyths.com/pine-needles-acidify-soil/). I slowly killed a number of plants before I learned that sulfur was the answer.

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