Sandhills Berries, Part 3

It’s blueberry pickin’ time

By Jan Leitschuh

We are in it now, the thick of summer.

Our Sandhills area is so horticulturally blessed. We have been celebrating the stellar trio of local berries available in the Sandhills, and our last berry star is the rabbiteye blueberry so abundant this month of July.

Go on, sprinkle blueberries over everything you eat. You know you want to. Your taste buds — and health — will thank you.

True, local blueberries have peeped forth in June. Those were the Southern highbush (SHB) blueberry bushes. Now, I love those early berries, and seek them out at farmers markets. But as a kitchen gardener, I have never had terrific luck harvesting a large crop from my 15-year-old SHBs.

Perhaps, since they bloom earlier, they’ve been nipped by our increasingly erratic spring temperature swings. I’ve heard SHBs need an even lower pH than the rabbiteye varieties and that I could add a little sulfur to the soil, though my leaves are nice and green (as opposed to yellowing), indicating happiness. I’ve heard the “Legacy” variety of SHB is more forgiving.

However, since local blueberry professionals seem to do just fine, in the future, I’ll leave the SHBs to the pros and enjoy their precocious products at the you-picks and farmers markets. I sure do like nibbling those early highbush berries. But in my garden, I’ll focus on rabbiteye blueberries.

Blueberry quality and flavor from the supermarket is unpredictable and often terrible. That’s why I prefer to grow my own — plus, I know they are organic because I grew them that way.

I have long said that the rabbiteye blueberry is the ideal Sandhills edible landscaping shrub. I know some mighty fancy places in Pinehurst and Southern Pines that have rabbiteye blueberries gracing their property, quietly incorporated into their overall landscape plan. Unless one knew where and when to look, they might never be noticed.

First of all, rabbiteyes are easy. They need little effort and maintenance to thrive well in a home garden or landscape. Rabbiteyes bloom later, so are less susceptible to damaging late frosts, and they tolerate higher pH and mediocre soil conditions. They tolerate a little shade.

Native to our region, Vaccinium ashei loves our hot, humid Carolina summers and easy winters. It makes a nice, head-high shrub over time, although if pruned right after the berries have been picked, you can keep the bush height lower.

Besides being a food source for man and bird, the rabbiteye blueberry shrub has four-season landscape interest.

In spring, when rabbiteyes flower as the nights shift between frosty and mild, we enjoy seeing the delicate white blueberry flowers being worked by the harmless and workaholic solitary Southeastern blueberry bees, as well as honeybees, bumblebees, even carpenter bees. Come summer, rabbiteye bushes will produce buckets of sweet, crazy-healthy, edible berries for years to come — with little effort. Their bright cool green spring and summer foliage is an attractive foil to darker plants.

Come fall, the rabbiteye turns a beautiful reddish-burgundy color that persists somewhat into winter, where the shrub’s sculptural framework also adds textural interest.

Rabbiteye blueberry is a plant which benefits from cross-pollination and will produce more berry crops when at least two varieties are planted near each other. Don’t be impatient to pick. They may look blue and ready, but sample a few first before picking your winter freezer supply. Rabbiteye blueberries need to ripen awhile on the bush. Wait until the berries are fully ripe before you pick them or the fruit will not be very sweet, even bitter. If you let the rabbiteyes hang on the bush long enough, they really do taste good. The problem is, they turn that beautiful blue color before they are really ripe.

Then the birds come eat them. Some people use that nasty plastic netting, and we did too. But after tangling with the lawnmower blades and finding the occasional snared bird, we abandoned that. We have so many berries, we generally just share with the local songbirds that give us much pleasure (although I have swathed a particularly late bush in tulle fabric just before harvest to extend my season).

If you choose to plant your own, stick with the rabbiteyes to start. Avoid completely the Northern highbush varieties grown in Maine and Vermont. Here in mid-North Carolina, they will be a disappointing and expensive waste of space, producing little. Rabbiteyes are embarrassingly productive, and after eating your fill and filling your freezer, you’ll have some leftover to take to friends.

If you want to put some rabbiteye bushes in, consider selecting your site now and digging in some peat moss or decomposing pine bark. Chances are, you won’t add lime but gypsum can supply both calcium and sulfur, and not raise the pH like lime will. Blueberries need a pretty acid soil, a pH of 4.0 to 5.3, more so than even azaleas. Your soil may be fine, or you may need to add sulphur; testing is better than guessing for this long-lived and generous perennial shrub. Moore County Cooperative Extension can guide you in testing your soil and selecting proven varieties like Climax, TiffBlue, Premier, Onslow, Columbus and Powderblue.

That makes a pretty happy base for a shallow-rooted blueberry. Then, come late fall or winter, you can plant a couple of varieties of dormant plants on a slight mound or hill — it’s counterintuitive, but those shallow roots like to be a little higher than the surrounding soil. Mulch well with shredded leaf mulch or aged pine bark (not fresh). I beg my landscaper husband to bring home bags of fallen crape myrtle and Japanese maple leaves, since these small leaves decompose into a terrific mulch, and eventually enrich the soil. I would use the tougher oak leaves if they were well shredded.

That first summer, keep an eye on watering these new sets well, and you’ll be rewarded with future blueberry pies, cobblers and pancakes. We used to say that the rabbiteyes were basically pest-free, but in recent years there has been evidence of damage from an invasive little pest, the spotted wind drosophila. Again, Extension can advise you on management if this pest is an issue.

If blueberry Belgian waffles are on the menu this weekend, rest assured that blueberries are the healthiest part of the recipe. An entire cup contains only 84 calories, with 15 grams of carbohydrates. Calorie for calorie, this makes them an excellent source of fiber, vitamin C and vitamin K.

High in anthocyanin — the antioxidant that paints blueberries their namesake color — they offer powerful inflammation-fighting and cell-protecting properties. Besides containing the same resveratrol as red wine, blueberries contain another, similar compound, pterostilbene — which displays many of the same properties as resveratrol. It not only acts as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, but it also has anti-diabetic, cardio-protective, neuro-protective (good for the brain and eyes) and anti-cancer properties.

One study has shown that once absorbed, pterostilbene may hang around our bodies offering its many health benefits up to five times longer than resveratrol. Few commonly eaten foods are as rich in pterostilbene as blueberries, so we may be looking at a fruit that is even more unique than previously believed in terms of its ability to support our health.

And a recent study on rheumatoid arthritis reports that the one food that best relieved inflammatory autoimmune symptoms was simple and delicious blueberries.

So we know you’ll get your health on when you spoon these over pound cake, or whip up a batch of blueberry-lemon muffins. But what else can you do with these sweet puppies?

Given that June’s tender baby zucchini have by now mutated into green baseball bats and you are making zucchini bread, toss generous handfuls of blueberries into the batter to up the flavor and health benefits. July’s morning smoothies demand blueberry nutrition — and for a beach afternoon or evening, search out online recipes for boozy blueberry floats, or icy sips like blueberry-basil-infused vodka. If you’re feeling too slowed by the summer heat to make jams, or even pie, search out a Blueberry Crumb bar recipe.

Blueberries play well with chocolate, so chunk some into your summer brownies. A savory blueberry-onion jam or blueberry-chicken mole may intrigue you. Too hot for even that? Churn up some blueberry-lemon ice cream, or spoon out some chilled blueberry soup for starters.

Blueberry Summer Soup (or Sauce)

3 cups fresh blueberries (frozen, if you must)

1 cup water

2 tablespoons sweetener — honey, sugar or substitute

2 teaspoons lemon juice

1 cinnamon stick, optional

2 teaspoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon lemon zest

Yogurt, crème fraîche or whipped cream for serving, if desired

Toss all ingredients  but the cornstarch and lemon zest into a pan and bring to a gentle boil. Stir the cornstarch into 1 tablespoon of warm water to make a slurry, then stir this into the cooked berries. Bring back to a very gentle boil and cook, stirring, until sauce starts to thicken, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon zest.  Serve warm over pound cake, pancakes, cheesecake or waffles. Or chill and serve later as a cold soup with a creamy garnish.  PS

Call Moore County Cooperative Extension for a list of local You-Pick berry farms: 910-947-3188.

Jan Leitschuh is a local gardener, avid eater of fresh produce and co-founder of the Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative.

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