Waxy Bells of the Laurels

Vaccinium corymbosum

Somehow I have missed the parade of Vaccinium blooms until now. They and the closely-related Gaylussacia are ericads (laurels) that flower before and during leaf out in late April and into early May, while the larger laurels bloom later in May or into June and July and even August. The Vaccinium species—various blueberries and cranberries—and Gaylussacia—most of the huckleberries—have waxy bell-shaped flowers. The flowers of the blueberries are creamy colored with the high-bush species having tinges of pink. The local huckleberry flower tends to have little or no pink tint, although they are often described as being orange.

The cranberries (V. macrocarpon) have more specialized wetland habitat, which does exist on the island, most famously on Wampanoag land in Aquinnah, and their flowers have a different appearance. They are quite pink and have downward pointed cones of stamens and a style in front of a whorl of reflexed petals.

Vaccinium angustifolium

Here on Martha’s Vineyard the high-bush blueberries (V. corymbosum) appear to flower first, followed by the low-bush (V. angustifolium), and then the huckleberries (G. baccata). While the huckleberries are ubiquitous on Martha’s Vineyard, the low-bush blueberries are nearly so, but the high-bush blueberries occur more  sporadically in the wild.

All the ericads are acid-soil loving plants and the dominant oak canopy assures that the low pH substrate is widespread on the island. We were walking through a Land Bank property off Middle Road recently and encountered a veritable grove of V. corymbosum that were six to eight feet high. Some of the canopy trees and understory had been removed around them, which gave them more light and they were flowering profusion as a result.

Blueberries are self-pollinating, but the berries are bigger if they are cross-pollinated. Pollination can be accomplished by either bees or the wind, but the plants have to be close together to achieve cross-pollination. V. corymbosum will not self-pollinate. It was cultivated by North American tribal peoples for thousands of years and is now the most often commercially cultivated species.

Gaylussacia baccata

Low-bush blueberries are grown commercially in Maine, Massachusetts, and Nova Scotia, where the patches are managed wild plants. They are harvested by raking them; the “rakes” are like dust bins with tines. Using this tool is a vernacular art peculiar to the region. Outside of these areas the high-bush blueberries are picked by hand.

Blueberries are one of those crops—like almonds and oranges—that are pollinated by imported bees. Farmers bring the hives to the fields during the flowering. As they start flowering in April here and in May farther north, bumble bees are sometimes used to supplement the honey bees. Bumble bees will fly in colder weather and pollinate the flowers differently. I have seen bumble bees flying around here on Martha’s Vineyard, but as yet have not seen a honey bee.

I am still confused by the creamy color of the huckleberry flowers around here. All images that I find online are a bright reddish orange. The dwarf huckleberry (G. bigeloviana) has whitish flowers, but is supposedly a more northern plant that is said to be rare south of New Hampshire and is not recorded on Martha’s Vineyard at all. It is possible I am misidentifying some low-bush blueberries as huckleberries. That will become more clear when the leaf out is completed.

Both G. baccata and V. angustifolium growth is abetted by fire. Controlled burns are used regularly on conservation lands on this island in order to stop succession from heath to forest. In some areas here the huckleberries are almost a monoculture in the understory and the blueberries might be more common than I think. In any case, I’m looking forward to July when all of these plants bear fruit.