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.
Still, blueberries were a “What if?” that Elizabeth and her father often discussed. In a 1953 interview, she said, “[Father and I] had talked about the possibility of adding blueberries to our cranberry crop, but we were not the first people to know that we had to have a uniform product. We knew the wild bushes were very, very different. We used to go around sampling these fruits; one would be too sour, one would be too flat, one would be too skinny, and, finally, we would come to one that father would call “peachy” — but we didn’t know how to propagate the plant. At that time, it was said among the farmers of New Jersey that blueberries could not be cultivated.”
The breakthrough came in 1910 when 39-year-old Elizabeth read Experiments in Blueberry Culture by Frederick Coville, then head botanist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and something of a celebrity thanks to his botanical investigations with John Muir in Death Valley.
In 1906, Coville had taken samples of wild blueberries to his experimental greenhouses in the District of Columbia (now the south parking lot of the Pentagon). He grew them in tinted glass pots to observe the roots and soon discovered a number of peculiarities about the way blueberries grow. Most importantly, he realized that the main reason others had failed before him was that blueberries need slightly acidic soil (4.0 to 5.0 pH) rather than the alkaline loam usually used in garden plots (see “Tips for Growing Blueberries” later in this article to learn how to acidify your soil naturally).
By the time he published Experiments, Coville had already selected and named the very first blueberry cultivar, ‘Brooks,’ a deliciously firm and juicy berry with a pale-blue color and just the right amount of acidic zing. The new possibilities were so exciting to Elizabeth that she immediately wrote a letter inviting the USDA to plant an experimental plot in the unused land between her family’s cranberry bogs. When Coville accepted, local headlines exploded with the news that the famous botanist was coming to what was then known as White’s Bog.
It was the perfect symbiosis, says Albertine Senske, archivist at Whitesbog Preservation Trust. “Elizabeth was the agriculturalist; Coville was the botanist. He understood the plants, but she was the one who knew how to grow things and how to plant and analyze them for a business.”
Elizabeth also had the network to coax local Pineys into revealing their prize bushes, which she dug up and replanted at Whitesbog. Cuttings of the most promising berries were sent off to Coville’s D.C. greenhouse to be used as parents for the next generation. Her notes were meticulous, recording the berry’s size, color, and flavor, whether or not the fruit’s skin ripped when plucked, and how well the plant handled cold and pests. Elizabeth later said the brutal trials resulted in “thousands upon thousands of bearing bushes dug up and burned.”
Of the berries to survive the trials, a few are still widely cultivated today, such as ‘Rubel’ and ‘Stanley,’ while others served as parents for generations of hybrids, including ‘Katharine,’ ‘Jersey,’ and ‘Pioneer.’ ‘Bluecrop,’ one of the most common cultivars sold in supermarkets, is a descendant of the Whitesbog test plots.
Tour leader Brenda Conner’s favorite berry is, of course, ‘Elizabeth,’ a large berry so sweet it’s described as blueberry candy. The cultivar is too fragile to make commercial growing profitable, but Conner and her husband, who is Elizabeth’s great nephew, keep them on the farm both as a nod to Aunt Lizzy and because they’re so delicious.
Elizabeth harvested the first crop of improved blueberries in 1916. In 1920, when there were fewer than 150 acres planted, Elizabeth assured the American Pomological Society that “blueberry culture has a great future … In a few years it will be yielding large revenues from thousands of acres that are now wasteland.” She didn’t know just how great; today there are more than half a million acres of blueberries grown in the U.S. alone.
Tips for Growing Blueberries
First, identify the type of blueberry that’s best for your climate. Lowbush blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium) are native to colder parts of North America. Northern highbush (V. corymbosum) berries grow wild in the eastern mountains of the U.S. Rabbiteye blueberries (V. ashei) are native to the southeastern United States and are tolerant of heat and humidity. Saskatoons (Amelanchier alnifolia) are the top choice for very cold climates; their fruits resemble blueberries, but these shrubs are actually in the rose family.
Plant blueberries in a sunny, well-drained site with a pH below 5.0. You can acidify soil by top-dressing it with sulfur, pine needles, or oak leaves twice a year. Don’t let blueberries dry out, and research proper pruning techniques to keep production high.
Lindsay Gasik is a fruit-hunting geek and horticultural tour guide in Malaysia and Thailand. Follow her adventures at www.YearOfTheDurian.com.