[New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station]
Jersey Fresh Information Exchange
Photo: Jersey Produce

A Legend from the New Jersey Pine Barrens
This One is True and It's Blue

Something legendary emerged from deep in the heart of the Pine Barrens in the early part of the 20th century. Jersey Devil? Guess again: Jersey Blues.

The Pine Barrens of New Jersey is where the cranberry and blueberry grow wild. Like its cousin the cranberry, blueberries thrive on the acid soils of the pinelands. The wild blueberries in the New Jersey Pine Barrens had long been picked and used by Native Americans who knew that blueberries were good for relieving stomach problems1. Also called low-bush blueberries, these wild plants grow naturally on acid soils, producing fruit that is quite small on plants that only grow about a foot tall.

The modern domesticated, or highbush blueberry produces bigger berries, and more of them, on a plant that grows nearly ten times taller than its wild cousin. And here is where our legend begins. Much of the credit for development of the commercial highbush blueberry goes to Elizabeth Coleman White, daughter of cranberry grower Joseph J. White and resident of Whitesbog, NJ in Burlington County. Miss Lizzie, as she was commonly called, devoted her life (1871-1954) to the study and breeding of blueberries.2

The domestication of the blueberry started in 1908 when a researcher at the United States Department of Agriculture, Dr. Frederick Coville, began studying wild blueberries and seeking out superior plants for breeding. He made his first selection of plants on his home farm in the mountains of New Hampshire. In 1911, Elizabeth read a United States Department of Agriculture report on Frederick Coville's work in blueberry propagation. Because Elizabeth had always wanted to raise blueberries to sell at the markets, she wrote to Coville inviting him to continue his research at Whitesbog, the farm she worked with her father. Coville accepted the offer. For the next five years, Elizabeth White and Frederick Coville worked together. White located wild blueberry bushes by asking local Pineland people to help her find the best blueberries from the wild bushes. She wrote out directions for them to follow and named a bush after its finder. The area woodsmen taught her all about berry size, flavor, and ripening. She offered from one to three dollars to the woodsmen for marking the largest berry on any bush. Thousands of cuttings were taken to create the new varieties. In 1916, White and Coville produced the first commercial crop of blueberries.3

First introduced in New Jersey, the market for commercial blueberries grew as available quantities, packaging and transportation increased. In 1918, a New Jersey Cranberry and Blueberry Laboratory was also located at Whitesbog to assist in the on-going scientific investigation of both cranberry and blueberry propagation. Although initially formed to investigate cranberry related issues, as the blueberry research expanded, the laboratory's work gradually shifted focus. The laboratory remained at Whitesbog until transferred to Pemberton in 1927. It again later moved to Chatsworth where it remains to this day.

Fast forward to present day.

Researchers at Rutgers University's Philip E. Marucci Blueberry and Cranberry Research Center in Chatsworth have long been advancing insect control, disease resistance and breeding of blueberries and cranberries. And now in the 21st century, we find another woman pioneer breaking new ground in research on blueberries - this time on their health benefits. Dr. Amy Howell is researching the medicinal effects of blueberries, looking at their antioxidant and anti-bacterial properties and, along with breeder Dr. Nicholi Vorsa, ways to breed them for higher levels of medicinal compounds. Their research has contributed to the growing evidence that blueberries are nutritional blue gems in our dietary treasure trove.

Blueberries rank among the highest in antioxidants compared with other fruits or vegetables tested. By combating free-radicals in our bodies, antioxidants help protect against various diseases such as cancer and heart disease, and delay the aging process. Its antioxidant properties alone are enough to warrant blueberries a place in the nutritional hall of fame, but they also can reduce urinary tract infections as well. Dr. Howell's research has found that the anti-bacterial properties of blueberries prevent bacteria from sticking to cell surfaces in the urinary tract, potentially preventing infection.

Now that you have this food for thought, you can feel happy when you got the Jersey Blues. Even though their growing season is from mid-June until September, you can enjoy Jersey Fresh blueberries year round by freezing them directly in their plastic containers. Bon appetit.

Cindy Rovins, Agricultural Communications Editor