Parts of the woods at Tangled Branches South are carpeted with blueberries (Vaccinium sp.). Or they may be huckleberries (Gaylussacia sp.). I haven’t made a serious attempt to identify which species because everywhere I read that identification is difficult and natural hybrids are common. Further, huckleberries, which are now in the genus Gaylussacia were once in the genus Vaccinium. And one of the Vacciniums I think I may have identified here goes by the common names of Black Highbush Blueberry and Downy Swamp-Huckleberry. There are at least 3 species of Vaccinium/Gaylussacia in the photo above.
But there’s one Vaccinium which is fairly easy to identify and is blooming now.
Deerberry – Vaccinium stamineum – has relatively large, attractive, abundant, white bell-shaped flowers.
The berries are supposedly edible, but I haven’t tried them – one reason being that I’ve never seem them. I wonder if the critters eat them before they’re ripe? I’ve seen bluebirds feasting on green blueberries, long before I would think they taste good.
Some of my favorite wildflower books are really ecology books. John Eastman’s The Book of… series not only describes the plants, but tells you their roles in the great web of life. This is from The Book of Forest and Thicket:
Blueberry plants host so many insects that only some of them can be mentioned. The chief pollinators are bees. Inside the flower, bees often vibrate their wings vigorously, shaking loose the pollen. Look for flowers punctured at the base, where bees occasionally bypass their pollination task by biting through the flower wall to “rob” the nectaries. Watch too for bees landing on discolored leaves and licking them; this behavior transmits Monilinia, a fungous disease of the fruits.
Because so many members of the blueberry clan live around here, I’ve not tried to grow them in the garden. But Sara Stein had high praise for them as garden plants in her book Noah’s Garden:
Blueberries are happy in full sun, relaxed in dappled shade, uncomplaining of drought, but just as pleased to grow in damp. No blueberry pal of mine has ever asked for pruning, wanted my protection from pests or weather, or even expressed the slightest appetite for food. They are companions whose kin are also welcome: their lowbush cousins, their huckleberry relatives, their dwarfs and creeping species. And this tribe has what has become for me the authenticity I seek: they are American natives.
A word about Noah’s Garden. When I first read it, I didn’t like it much. I recognized good writing, but I thought the subject was old and tired and the presentation a bit preachy. What I failed to take into account was that it was written a good fifteen years before I read it. The idea of saving native plants by growing them in gardens – which now seems obvious – was not yet part of the gardeners’ collective consciousness when the book was published in 1993. Imagine how many years of work and study went into it before publication. So I plan to reread it, with a more open mind. A garden writer who loves Vacciniums must have something important to say.