POUND RIDGE, N.Y. (AP) -- The blueberry is such a stellar garden crop it's hard to believe it has added a new star to its luster.
But to ease of growth, fine taste, ornamental beauty and longevity has now been added a health attribute of special interest to the elderly. Blueberries may help improve balance, coordination and short-term memory.
A study done on aging rats showed they perked up in those areas when fed the human equivalent of at least half a cup a day.
The experiment was performed at the Agriculture Department's Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. Strawberry and spinach extracts also helped memory, but only the blueberry improved the rats' balance and coordination, researchers said. Trials will now be needed to see whether humans get the same benefit.
Meanwhile, the berries are great eating, anyway, and there are plenty of other incentives to cultivate a plant so easy to grow you can say it raises itself. After a forest fire or extensive cutting, the blueberry bush is often one of the first plants to revitalize an area.
One thing it needs is acid soil and there's lots of that available in its natural state. If necessary, you can modify soil with sulfur or peat to make it more acidic. The soil should be moist, but well-aerated, too, and the area around the bush kept free of weeds and grass.
Renowned as the most widespread of wild fruit, the blueberry feeds both tropical tribes and Eskimos. And it's also a mainstay of the bird diet. Without protection, a bush may yield its entire crop to birds. So that's something to make serious preparations for by using netting or even cages.
A neighbor of mine gave up on fighting birds, but not on the plants. He has lovely stands of them, glorying in their autumn tints and in the shapely, Japanesey look of the branches.
Blueberries offered in the supermarket seem to get ever larger, but the small fruit varieties are still highly popular. I have a friend who grows the small berry commercially in New Brunswick, Canada, and sends me a few quarts now and then. I find the taste more intense than the larger berry.
Anyone wanting to start a blueberry patch will find many varieties available. For example, Miller Nurseries of Canandaigua, N.Y. (Tel. 800-836-9360), a major fruit source, offers 13 varieties in its 2000 catalog, from small to large, early to late, and some super-hardy ones that will bear even after temperatures of 29 degrees to 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
As a starter, Miller offers a collection of six different varieties for $29.85. These are three-year-old plants 12 inches to 18 inches tall bearing berries of varying sizes, degrees of hardiness and maturing dates. Growing different varieties helps pollination and, of course, increases the duration of your blueberry season. Bushes will start bearing the year after they are planted. And a planting may last as long as 25 to 30 years.
For Far Northern gardeners, a berry developed by breeders at the University of Minnesota and named Northsky has borne berries after enduring temperatures of minus 40 degrees. It's available from Miller at $7.95 for one plant and $6.75 apiece for five to nine plants.
So-called "lowbush" berries, no taller than 18 inches are the hardiest. The "highbush" blueberry, about six feet tall, yields the larger berries commonly found at the market and, of course, stars as an ornamental. In the Southeast, a variety called "rabbiteye" reaches heights of 10 feet and more. Breeders have also produced good berries from crosses of low and high bushes.
What's the difference between blueberries and huckleberries? The names are frequently interchanged. But horticulturists will tell you the huckleberry has 10 large seeds and the blueberry many tiny soft seeds.
EDITOR'S NOTE: George Bria retired from the AP in 1981 after 40 years that included coverage of World War II from Italy.
End advance for Thursday, Aug. 24
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