THEY first appeared on eastern shores, spreading out under skies redolent with fir, in soils sour and sodden, amid a rugged, salty, rock-strewn wilderness. Vaccinium. Creeping hugger-mugger along the bays of Maine, growing thick in the woods of Michigan, and climbing hips-high in dear old Georgia, these shrubs, hedges and groundcovers are true-blue American heroes.
The Vaccinium genus is a big, boisterous brood, with many cousins, aunties and uncles. Azaleas and rhododendrons are invited to the family potlucks, lingonberries always get a card at Christmas, and cranberries are the tart, painted sisters whom the elders keep hush about.
Large though these families may be, with dozens and dozens of varieties grown all over the U.S., it is only within the last decade or so that one irreverent \o7Vaccinium\f7 -- the blueberry -- has immigrated to Southern California in any substantial way.
It's the soil, you see. It's too sweet -- that is to say, too alkaline. The blueberry requires acidic soil. Well-draining dirt too, please. No wet feet for these fellows. The plants also need a significant chilling to push them into dormancy, which helps them to produce flowers and fruit.
On paper, these are life forms that shouldn't be in our company. On paper, these plants look like a lot of work. Good thing gardeners don't always read the fine print.
Donald Merhaut, a horticulture specialist with UC Riverside's department of botany and plant sciences, has been leading field trials with \o7Vaccinium\f7 varieties, new and old, for years.
"We're evaluating what cultivars might be best for the homeowner," he says. "Ornamentally, some are very beautiful. For example, 'Climax' and 'Powderblue' are great. But we're looking at everything -- the canopy, the flower, the chill requirements -- and I'll tell you, we're getting some great results."
Planted into the ground in Southern California, these shrubs are ravenous for attention, quickly gobbling up whatever acid soil mix you've provided. But when transplanted into large pots and placed on a patio spot with substantial morning sun, the specimens will do just fine -- lovely enough to merit a whooping leap onto Oprah's couch.
Once established, watered regularly and fed occasionally with an organic acidic fertilizer (skanky old coffee grounds will do), your \o7Vaccinium\f7 likely will be happy for years.
And the rewards you will muster.
Ah, the leaves. They seem to be forever changing color. Shaped like a drowsy cat's eye, they run the gamut of greens, from frosted and pale to sun-swallowing forest floor. Young leaves often are edged in coral pinks.
"If it's cold enough, 'Misty' will get dark crimson-colored leaves in the fall," Merhaut says, adding that the older rabbiteye varieties get a nice waxy quality. "Very attractive."
The leaves alone could be the show, but there's more.
The flowers arrive in early spring and then, depending on the cultivar, continue opening up throughout the summer. They dangle from woody stems in delicate clusters, each billowing like Minnie Mouse bloomers parachuting open to save her from disaster. They are onion skin thin, strings of miniature paper lanterns. The blooms close and fade to a coppery, burnt orange hue.
But if you haven't guessed, it's the berry that stars in this production. The infant berries are translucent and soft, like polished jade pebbles. As they fatten, pinks and violet tones blush across their skins. At maturity they are corpulent and irresistible in deep blue, purple and black. The exact color of the ripe fruit depends on how much sunlight the berry receives.
Old-timers and horticulture enthusiasts have been playing with blueberries in their backyards for ages. Most grew rabbiteye, but this rangy fellow got the reputation for having inferior fruit and consequently wasn't offered by most California nurseries.
"Which is too bad because it isn't true," Merhaut says.
It wasn't until the mid-1990s that cultivars from the South came sashaying into our landscape. Southern high-bush cultivars that required significantly less chill time than their northern counterparts were crossed and refined until the resulting plants could thrive in the glare of a Hollywood summer.
Remarkably, it is now possible to grow \o7Vaccinium\f7 that produces fruit nearly year-round. In April, varieties such as 'O'Neal' begin to bear. 'Climax' is a good choice in the summer, and for autumn berries, a new blueberry from New Zealand called 'Maru' will produce reliably.
Experts recommend that you tend at least two varieties at a time for optimum flower and fruit production. As in most species, cross-pollination promotes healthy offspring. Simply knowing you'll need variety and that each cultivar can grow differently will help you maximize the pleasure of growing these plants.