Monday, May 20, 2024

Get It Growing: Louisiana berry basics

by David Specht
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By Heather Kirk-Ballard | LSU AgCenter Horticulturist

It’s blueberry harvest season. Blueberries are packed with important nutrients, including vitamins and ascorbic acid. They’re also a superior source of antioxidants such as anthocyanins, procyanidins, chlorogenic acid and various flavonoid compounds.

Anthocyanin, the main antioxidant in blueberries, is linked with a myriad of health benefits. It boasts cancer-fighting properties, supports eye health, possesses antidiabetic effects and helps in reducing blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Simply put, integrating blueberries into your diet can be a delicious way to bolster your health, and planting them can beautify your landscape.

Among the varieties thriving in Louisiana, the rabbiteye blueberry (Vaccinium virgatum or V. ashei) stands out. This deciduous shrub is native to the southeastern United States and has earned the title of a Louisiana Super Plant for its excellent performance in gardens, landscapes and even containers. It’s named for the pink hue of its fruit before ripening, which is reminiscent of an albino rabbit’s eye.

Rabbiteye blueberries are not only valued for their fruit but also for their aesthetic appeal. With delicate blue-green foliage that turns vibrant red and orange in fall and white, umbrella-shaped flowers in spring, they enhance any landscape.

Rabbiteye blueberries, like all blueberries, require acidic soils (pH 4.2 to 5.5) and thrive in USDA hardiness zones 8 to 10. They need at least six to eight hours of full sun daily for optimal fruit production. These bushes can grow up to 8 feet tall and should be planted 4 to 6 feet apart during their dormant phase in fall or winter. For best results, especially in areas with heavy soils, they should be grown in raised beds to ensure well-drained conditions and adequate moisture during dry periods.

Cross-pollination is key to their productivity, so planting at least two to three varieties together is recommended. While rabbiteye blueberries have few major pests, proper fertilization and pruning are essential to maintain health and yield. Pruning helps manage bush size and encourages new growth, ensuring the fruit stays within easy reach.

Pruning is necessary to remove old or dead wood, thin out dense areas and shape the plant. It encourages healthy growth and fruit production. While some blueberries are bred for disease resistance, they can still be susceptible to pests and diseases common in warmer climates such as root rot and fungal infections. Integrated pest management strategies can help minimize these issues.

When selecting a blueberry variety for Louisiana, consider the chilling requirement and ripening time. Traditional varieties like Premier, Climax, Brightwell, Tifblue and Powderblue are well-suited to most areas. Newer varieties like Alapaha, Ira, Onslow, Ochlockonee and DeSoto also show promise. For the southernmost parts of Louisiana where chill hours may be limited, the Prince variety, with one of the lowest chill hour requirements and early-season fruiting, is an excellent choice.

Southern highbush blueberries are another group of blueberry varieties that are particularly suited to growth in the South. They are hybrids developed by crossing Northern highbush varieties with native Southern species to produce plants that can thrive in warmer climates and have a low chill hour requirement. Chill hours are the number of hours below 45 degrees Fahrenheit that occur during the winter, essential for the dormancy and flowering of many temperate fruit plants.

Southern highbush blueberries require fewer chill hours than their Northern highbush counterparts, making them suitable for regions with mild winters. They tend to bear fruit earlier in the season, which can be advantageous for markets looking for early produce. These varieties are more tolerant of high temperatures and humidity, key traits for successful growth in Southern climates.

There’s a wide range of Southern highbush varieties, each with specific qualities such as size, taste and yield. The plants can vary in size but generally are medium to large, with some reaching up to 6 feet tall. They have an attractive bushy appearance that can also serve as a landscape feature.

LSU AgCenter horticulturist Kiki Fontenot has explored Southern highbush blueberries for their early market potential. They are distinct from the traditional rabbiteye varieties common in Louisiana. She has been evaluating 10 varieties that are evergreen, don’t shed leaves annually and bear fruit earlier, often by March.

Three cultivars that have zero chill hour requirements are Atlas blue, Bianca blue and Jupiter blue. In the first couple of years of observation, Fontenot noted that although these are favored for their zero chill hours, they are not as high yielding as other varieties. 

She mentioned that Endura and Arcadia were among the top performers in terms of yield and quality. Additionally, she highlighted Snowchaser as a variety known for its cold hardiness. The final group of varieties she evaluated, which included Ventura, Star, Kestrel and Jewel, were all noted for their good production levels.

Integrating blueberries into landscapes supports both aesthetic enjoyment and health benefits. Resources such as www.pickyourown.org/LA.htm provide information on finding or growing fresh blueberries in Louisiana, celebrating the season’s bounty and the versatile appeal of blueberries in home gardening.

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