Highbush or Lowbush Blueberries

Question: What is meant by highbush and lowbush blueberries? Which blueberry varieties are recommended for this region?

Thinking about planting some blueberry bushes this spring? Here is the lowdown on recommended blueberry bushes for Virginia.

Highbush and lowbush are two species of blueberry. Both are deciduous (shedding leaves in the Fall), twiggy shrubs that require moist, well-drained soil high in organic matter and highly acidic (4.5-5.5 range). However, they vary greatly in growth form. They grow in full sun to partial shade, but full sun is preferred; as more sun translates into more blooms, more fruit, and an enhanced fall foliage color.

The highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) is a native 6 to 12 feet tall, upright, crown-forming, North American shrub. It is commonly referred to as the northern highbush. The highbush is the major blueberry plant of commerce with more than 50 cultivars (or cultivated varieties) developed. It is widespread in eastern North America and has been introduced outside of its natural range for commercial berry production. It is extensively cultivated in New Jersey, Michigan, North Carolina, and Washington and to a lesser extent, in Georgia, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia. The highbush is self-fertile (can set fruit with the pollen of the same plant or same variety) but cross-pollination increases fruit set and results in larger, earlier berries.

The lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) is a low shrub or groundcover, usually 6 inches to 2 feet tall in height and width, with multiple stems and twiggy branches. It is native from Labrador to Manitoba in Canada, and Maine to North Carolina in the United States and as far west as Iowa and Minnesota. Although the lowbush often shares space with trees and shrubs in some states, it can form large natural blueberry barrens containing nothing but lowbush blueberries. These barrens, although wild, are managed by farmers as a wild fruit crop in northern New England and marketed as wild blueberries.

Photo by veeterzy on Unsplash

In Virginia, there are three species of blueberries that can be grown in home gardens: rabbiteye, southern highbush and northern highbush. To provide adequate cross-pollination and to increase chances for a good crop of fruit, two or more varieties that bloom at the same time (categorized as early, mid or late season) should be planted together.

It is also important to know that blueberries require “chilling” with the plant requiring exposure to cool temperatures in the range of 35 to 45 degrees during the winter months, in order to satisfy plant dormancy. The number of “chilling hours” required varies depending on species. For example, the southern highbush cultivars require 200 to 600 chilling hours, while the northern highbush cultivars require 600 to 1,000 chilling hours. Due to the southern highbush’s lower chilling hours requirement, they are at risk of breaking bud (premature flowering) during false spring conditions in late winter, resulting in flower damage.

Rabbiteye (Vaccinium virgatum) is a 3 to 6 feet deciduous shrub species native to southeastern United States and is the most adaptable of all types. It is best suited for regions in hardiness zones 7a to 8a (Charlottesville/Albemarle County is zone 7a). The southern highbush is a result from hybridizations of the northern highbush blueberry and other Vaccinium species, possessing southern United States adaptation attributes resulting in a lower chilling hours requirement and a greater tolerance to high summer temperatures. Southern highbush types are intermediate between northern highbush and rabbiteye in soil and climate adaptation and recommended in zones 7a to 8a.

The northern highbush is the blueberry of choice in Virginia hardiness zones 6b to 5b, although some sites rate the Duke and Legacy varieties to zone 7 and 8 respectively.

Albemarle County is located in hardiness zone 7a with a hot summer climate; therefore the rabbiteye or southern highbush varieties are suggested. When choosing a variety, it is important to research the characteristics of the cultivar; such as plant growth, fruiting habits, fruit size, maturity period, flavor and disease resistance to find a variety ideal for your intended location and preferences.

The Virginia Cooperative Extension publication, “Small Fruits In the Garden” listed below, includes a few favorite and recommended varieties for all three species grown in Virginia:

  • for rabbiteye: Brightwell, Powderblue and Premier;
  • for southern highbush: O’Neal and Suziblue;
  • and for northern highbush: Duke and Legacy.

Additional southern highbush varieties recommended for Virginia include: Palmetto, Camellia, Jubliee, Magnolia, Reville, Cape Fear, Sampson, Duplin, Blueridge and Legacy.

Additional rabbiteye varieties recommended for Virginia include: Montgomery, Columbus, Tifblue, Yadkin, Onslow, Alapaha, Climax, Titan, Vernon, Centurion, and Ochlokonee.

References

Vaccinium corymbosum, Highbush Blueberry,” University of Connecticut, College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, Plant Database.

Vaccinium angustifolium, Lowbush Blueberry,” University of Connecticut, College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, Plant Database.

“Northern Highbush and Lowbush Blueberries,” University of Virginia, College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, Mountain Lake Biological Station.

“Highbush Blueberry, Vaccinium corymbosum L.,” United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Plant Fact Sheet.

“Highbush Blueberry, Vaccinium corymbosum L.,” United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Plant Guide.

“Plant Profile for Vaccinium angustifolium Aiton, lowbush blueberry,” United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Plants Database.

“Small Fruit in the Home Garden,” Samtani, Jayesh B., Rafie, Reza, Wolf, Tony K., Virginia Cooperative Extension, Publication 426-840, 2016.

“Specialty Crop Profile: Blueberries,” Bratsch, Anthony & Pattison, Jeremy, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Publication 438-103, 2009.

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