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Taming the wild blueberry 100 years ago
6/9/2016 Volume XLIX, No. 22

Blueberries are superstars of the fruit world. They’re delicious, healthy and versatile, and can be found in stores and restaurants everywhere. What’s more, they’re an ingredient in more than 4,000 products, from muffins to pet food to cosmetics.

And it all started in New Jersey!

The popularity of blueberries can be credited directly to Elizabeth Coleman White and Frederick V. Coville, who one century ago in the Pine Barrens succeeded in hybridizing wild blueberry plants to create a new domestic blueberry industry.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first commercial harvest of domesticated blueberries at Whitesbog, the White family’s farm in Browns Mills, Burlington County.

The blueberry centennial will be celebrated on June 25 and 26 at the annual Whitesbog Blueberry Festival.  Whitesbog is now an historic site within Brendan Byrne State Forest, with many of the farm’s original buildings still intact.

“We’re celebrating the anniversary of the release of the first crop of blueberries,” said Alison Pierson, director of the Whitesbog Preservation Trust.

The 1916 commercial crop amounted to only about 450 quarts, but it launched a craving for blueberries that has spread far and wide. Today, about a billion pounds of blueberries are grown annually around the world!

Because of the heightened interest in the blueberry centennial, said Pierson, this year’s Whitesbog festival has been expanded to two days. For the first time, it will include wagon rides to the original fields where Elizabeth White tested bushes to judge the size, taste and color of the berries. Also new this year be an all-blueberry art exhibit at a renovated workers cottage-turned-gallery.

Elizabeth White was born in 1891 into a South Jersey cranberry growing family, and shared a love of the natural world and agriculture with her father, Joseph J. White. She began working at the family farm when she was 22.

Father and daughter became interested in the idea of growing blueberries as a second crop at Whitesbog. Blueberries had always grown wild in the acidic soils of the Pine Barrens, but their quality was inconsistent – some were sour, while others were small and not very fleshy. Most local farmers believed wild bushes couldn’t be domesticated to produce consistently sweet and plump berries.

In 1910, Elizabeth learned of Dr. Coville, a U.S. Department of Agriculture botanist who had done extensive blueberry research but had not been successful in cultivating bushes in a greenhouse. After reading his “Experiments in Blueberry Culture,” Elizabeth and her father invited Coville to partner and experiment with them at Whitesbog.

Elizabeth White and Coville threw themselves into their experiments. Elizabeth recruited local “pineys” to scour the Pine Barrens for bushes that produced superior berries. In 1914, they picked their first berries from a successful cross-pollination, and by 1916 the first blueberry crop was for sale.

Coville trumpeted their achievement in the June 1916 edition of National Geographic, in an article titled, “The Wild Blueberry Tamed: The New Industry of the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.” He noted that because blueberries grow best in soils “so acid as to be considered worthless for other agricultural purposes,” their cultivation provides local farmers a new crop for previously unused land.

This month, celebrate all things blueberry at the Whitesbog Blueberry Festival, and see a piece of New Jersey history come to life!

To learn more about Whitesbog, the history of blueberry cultivation and the Blueberry Festival, visit the Whitesbog Preservation Trust website at www.whitesbog.org.

And for more information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

 

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