I grew up in Michigan, where we grew highbush blueberries. Now I live in Maryland, Zone 6b, and I’m told to grow rabbiteye varieties, but I can’t get a clear answer on why not to plant highbush. Which are better for my region?
Answer: Rabbiteyes (Vaccinium ashei) are native to the southeastern United States. Supposedly they are called rabbiteye because the berries turn pink before they go blue, reminiscent of the eye color of a white rabbit. Highbush blueberries (V. corymbosum) are found in the wild in northeastern North America. The name highbush implies it might be the larger plant, but it is actually smaller than rabbiteye. Highbush earned its name because it is taller than lowbush blueberries, the other species important to the blueberry industry. Lowbush (usually V. angustifolium or V. myrtilloides) produce very small berries used primarily in baked goods.
You’re lucky because in your area you can grow rabbiteye or highbush, but each has its pros and cons. Rabbiteyes have a lower chilling requirement, so they will be apt to bloom earlier your region, making them more susceptible to spring frosts. Highbush blueberries aren’t immune to this by any means, and their bloom time may only be a week or two later. Still, a week or two can be the difference between no crop or a diminished crop and a full crop.
In spite of blooming later, highbush ripen about a month earlier in the summer, so picking season temperatures will be more pleasant than that of the rabbiteye, which ripen during the dog days. Highbush blueberry fruits are usually larger, so your bucket fills more quickly. The fruit is jucier, with a thinner skin. Quality after freezing is quite high. Rabbiteyes are a little tougher and though they freeze beautifully, the skin becomes tougher after freezing. For eating fresh out of hand, I have found the rabbiteyes to be a little sweeter. After freezing, the tenderness of the highbush berry might edge out the rabbiteye.
Rabbiteye plants can get quite large, up to 20 feet if allowed to grow unchecked. If you wish to keep them at a height where you can easily reach all the berries, you will need to prune vigorously after a few years of growth. In commercial operations they are often hedge rowed to accommodate mechanical pickers. Highbush plants average about six to eight feet, though some may top out at ten to twelve. Both benefit from rejuvenation pruning after a few years, removing the oldest canes entirely as they get unproductive.
Both need well-drained acid soil and supplemental water during dry times, but rabbiteye are a bit more tolerant of drought and less-than-ideal pH. I’ve grown both and found that highbush are susceptible to quite a few diseases. Rabbiteyes are practically disease free, and they tend to have much longer productive lives.
I’d plant both. You will have blueberries almost the entire summer and you’ll get to decide for yourself which you prefer for flavor. You’ll find that each species has cultivars that vary in sweetness and taste. My favorite highbushes are ‘Spartan’, ‘Bluejay’ and ‘Bluecrop’. With rabbiteyes, you can’t go wrong with ‘Premier’and ‘Tifblue’. Both are
highly productive and good quality, with ‘Tifblue’ being the latest ripening.
You should get almost three months of fresh blueberries with these five cultivars. I would wager that 20 years from now the rabbiteyes will still be with you and the highbush will not.
For blueberries’ cultivation needs, click here.
Love blueberries? Learn more about them in Blueberries, Cranberries and Other Vacciniums and then learn how to put them to work in the kitchen with The Joy of Blueberries Cookbook
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