Ericaceae (heath family)
The genus Vaccinium includes blueberries, cranberries, huckleberries, and bilberries – in all, perhaps 150 species of deciduous and evergreen shrubs or vines native to the Northern Hemisphere. Vaccinium, like “vaccine,” seems to derive from the Latin word for “cow,” but the reason for its choice remains unclear. Many are grown for their prized edible fruits and medicinal Blueberry leaves. The species name, angustifolium, means “narrow-leaved”. Small oval or narrow leaves are a notable feature of blueberries and other members of the genus and the larger heath family.
The several species of multi-stemmed blueberry shrubs often have green or red twigs and terminal clusters of small, pendulous, urn-shaped white flowers during May and June. In late summer, the flowers ripen into many-seeded blue berries. The high-bush blueberry, V. corymbosum, the velvet-leaf blueberry, V. myrtilloides, and the low-bush blueberry, V. angustifolium, are most commonly found in eastern woodlands, from Nova Scotia south to Georgia and Alabama and west to Wisconsin. They can grow successfully in conditions ranging from swamps to dry upland woods. All three have been cultivated for garden enjoyment, and hybrids from these species are some of the best-bearing, winter-hardy blueberry shrubs offered for gardeners across the country.
Uwada’hio’ni’ – “plenty of berries” – is the Cayuga term for late summer when ripe berries abound, especially the delicious blueberries. The Oneida called blueberries and huckleberries “the early berries,” uhia’dji’ niyuhu’ndagwaha, and picked them in great numbers, collecting them in berry baskets. To help preserve the tart wild fruits, they lined their wood-splint baskets and bark buckets with large basswood leaves or fern fronds. Tribal people in the Northeast also used aromatic sweet-fern leaves and hay-scented fern fronds for this purpose. In years of abundance, berries were dried, and even smoked, to preserve them. Some were mashed into berry cakes and dried on large basswood and sycamore leaves in the sun or beside the fire, to be rehydrated later in soups, stews, or hot maple syrup water.
Native people drew benefits from blueberry shrubs well beyond the season of ripe fruits, collecting the small mature blueberry leaves before they reddened and fell from their shrubs in autumn. Blueberry leaf teas are mineral-rich astringents that were used to wash the skin and hair. They were also drunk to prevent the formation of bladder or kidney stones. Many tribes considered the blueberry leaf teas to be “blood purifiers” because of the tonic effect on the general digestive system. Algonquian Indians used blueberry leaves in teas to treat colic and stomach cramps and painful menstruation, as well as to aid uterine contractions during childbirth. Dried leaves were smudged and burned in kinnikinnik mixtures (and alone), and the smoke inhaled to clear congestion and treat nosebleed.
Blueberry leaf tea continues in use as a diabetes treatment, esteemed by many native herbalists, and also to treat bladder and kidney complaints. Its diuretic and astringent benefits make it a valuable choice for relieving urinary tract infections. This tea is also a helpful gargle to soothe swollen glands, sore throats, or mouth sores, and strong blueberry leaf teas (decoctions) are valued as antiseptic skin washes and to treat everything from poison ivy rashes to muscle cramps and insect and spider bites.
Along with huckleberries and bilberries, blueberries contain valuable compounds called anthocyanosides and arbutin. The first helps to treat, and even prevent, cataracts as well as aiding general eyesight; and the second helps to treat yeast infections. Some studies show that eating these berries in moderation helps to protect the stomach against ulcers by strengthening the stomach lining. Blueberries’ compound oligomeric procyanidins (OPCs) have anti-inflammatory benefits that may relieve some symptoms of multiple sclerosis. The dried fruits have concentrations of their inherent tannins and pectin, making them valuable treatments for diarrhea.
Blueberries are high in vitamin C and are favored as healing antioxidants.
Growth needs and propagation:
Most blueberry shrubs thrive in sandy or peaty acidic soils, though some will do well in moist rich earth. As acid-loving perennials, most varieties will perform best if fed a soil acidifier. They prefer full sun or open shade for healthiest growth.
It is best to have at least two or three blueberry shrubs in the medicine wheel garden to assure good cross-pollination for maximum fruits. Plant them two or three feet apart, depending upon size and species, and set them in a small triangle. Excellent new hybrid varieties that bloom and bear fruits early to late in the season are available, as well as fine dwarf low-bush (about eight inches tall) and stunning high-bush varieties (about three to four feet tall).
Velvetleaf blueberry, V. myrtilloides, makes a colorful show in the garden in autumn, when its oval, velvety leaves, which can grow two inches long, turn vibrant red. This low shrub favors moist, acid soil and will grow up to three feet tall and develop a dense root system. If allowed to, it can generate a colony of numerous additional shrubs.