By Michele S. Byers
Huge Jersey blueberries are one of summer’s greatest pleasures. It’s a fruit we take for granted.
You may not know that today’s blueberries came directly from wild blueberry bushes in the Pine Barrens! In fact, blueberries are one of the few, if not only, fruits that were cultivated from wild plants within one human generation.
The taming of the wild blueberry came about, in large part, due to the pioneering work of Elizabeth Coleman White, nicknamed New Jersey’s “Blueberry Queen.”
Elizabeth White’s delicious legacy will be celebrated on Saturday, June 29, at the 30th annual Whitesbog Blueberry Festival at historic Whitesbog Village in Browns Mills. In addition to celebrating all things blueberry, this year’s festival will mark the 30th anniversary of the nonprofit Whitesbog Preservation Trust and the “Centennial of the Blueberry.”
According to Susan Phillips, executive director of the Whitesbog Preservation Trust, it was a century ago that Elizabeth White entered into a history-making partnership with Dr. Frederick Coville to domesticate wild high-bush blueberries in the Pine Barrens.
“This is the 100th anniversary of their work together, but it’s not just one year. It took place over a period of time,” explained Phillips.
The Pine Barrens had always been a natural habitat for wild blueberries and cranberries, which thrive in acidic soil. Cranberries were the first to be cultivated.
Elizabeth White was born into a South Jersey cranberry growing family in 1871. She and her father, Joseph J. White, shared a love of the natural world and agriculture. At age 22, she began working at “Whitesbog,” the family cranberry farm.
Father and daughter explored the idea of growing a second crop. Both favored blueberries, since they’re in the same family as the cranberry. However, most farmers at the time believed the native bushes couldn’t be crossbred to produce fields of consistently good berries.
“We were not the first people to know that we had to have a uniform product,” Elizabeth later recalled. “We knew the wild bushes were very, very different. We used to go around sampling these fruits and one would be too sour and one would be too flat, one would be too skinny and finally, we would come to one that father would call ‘peachy,’ but we didn’t know how to propagate the plant.”
In 1910, Elizabeth learned of Dr. Coville, a U.S. Department of Agriculture agent who had done extensive blueberry research but had not been successful in cultivating bushes in his greenhouse. In 1911, she and her father invited Coville to Whitesbog to try his techniques in the Pine Barrens’ acidic soils.
Over the course of the next several years, the partnership of Elizabeth White and Frederick Coville achieved the impossible. In 1912 they began crossbreeding bushes, in 1914 they picked their first berries from a successful cross-pollination, and by 1916 they had a blueberry crop for sale.
To the delight of generations of blueberry lovers, White and Coville succeeded in producing berries that were just right – or “peachy,” as her father would have said. New Jersey became the birthplace of the cultivated blueberry, and the blueberry is now the official state fruit!
Today, Whitesbog is part of Brendan Byrne State Forest, and its historic village and surrounding agricultural lands are on the National Register of Historic Places.
To learn more about Elizabeth White, Whitesbog, the history of blueberry cultivation and the upcoming 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.