Vaccinium myrtilloides

Velvet Leaf Blueberry

Flora, fauna, earth, and sky...
The natural history of the northwoods

Name:

  • Vaccinium, from the Latin
  • myrtilloides, from the Greek, murtos, "myrtle"; "like a little myrtle"
  • Velvet Leaf Blueberry, from
  • Other common names include: Velvet Leaf Huckleberry

Taxonomy:

  • Kingdom Plantae, the Plants
    • Division Magnoliophyta, the Angiosperms (flowering plants)
      • Class Magnoliopsida, the Dicotyledons
      • Subclass Dilleniidae
  • Taxonomic Serial Number: 23604
  • Also known as Cyanococcus canadensis, Vaccinium canadense, Vaccinium angustifolium var. integrifolium, Vaccinium pennsylvanicum var. myrtilloides, Vaccinium angustifolium var. myrtilloides,
  • In the past, much taxonomic confusion has surrounded the relationship between Velvetleaf Blueberry and Late Low Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium). Plants of intermediate characteristics are now considered natural hybrids.

Identification:

Description:

  • Dwarf, deciduous rhizomatous shrub, 4"-35" in height; commonly forming small open colonies. On favorable sites, a single plant may reach 33' in diameter.
  • Roots: Develops an extensive network of roots and woody rhizomes. The numerous shallow roots are fibrous and much-branched, with considerable lateral spread. Taproots may be absent, although at some sites, taproots 3/8" in diameter have been reported at depths to 3'.
  • Branches velvety and ascending; twigs green or brown.
  • Bark dirty brown or green.
  • Leaves thin, alternate, entire; elliptic to sublanceolate, 3/4"-1 1/2" in length. Upper surface bright green, underside paler; usually pubescent on both sides.
  • Flowers white to greenish, pale pink or purple-tinged, borne in terminal or lateral racemes. Shape drooping and bell shaped, typical of heaths. Nectar contains more sucrose than do the flowers of Late Low Blueberry.
  • Fruit bright, frosty blue to dark blue, or, less commonly, white berry 3/16"-3/8" in diameter. Berries generally glaucous, containing an average of 16 small seeds or nutlets 0.04" long.

Distribution:

  • Labrador across Canada to British Columbia and the Northwest Territories, southward through the mountains of New England, New York, and Pennsylvania to West Virginia and Virginia. Common in the upper Midwest and Lake States.
  • Evidence suggests that this now transcontinental species was formerly restricted to the central Arctic at the end of the Tertiary.

Habitat:

  • Drier, relatively infertile conifer stands; also forested portions of bogs, in muskegs, peatlands, treeless mountain slopes, mountain meadows, barrens, headlands, boreal forests, and on rock outcrops. Reaches greatest abundance on disturbed sites such as clearcuts or recent burns.
  • Generally tolerant of shade; grows well in open woods, though berry production is enhanced in sunny locations.
  • Soils: A wide variety including well-drained coarse, or light-textured soils; fine sandy soils, loam, clay loam, till, and lacustrine deposits. Generally reaches greatest abundance on moderate to light, often sandy, well-drained soils with adequate soil moisture. Soils are generally acidic, with pH from 3.0 to 5.9. Soils are commonly nitrogen-poor but may be rich in organic matter. Organic content 3%-93%.
  • Residual plants commonly colonize burned sites in northern boreal forests. Reestablishment often rapid, particularly after light to moderate fires. Can assume prominence within 2-3 years after fire in jack pine woodlands.
  • Can persist in a variety of mature or climax forests. More tolerant of shade than other species of Vaccinium. It can survive in closed stands, including White Spruce (Picea glauca)/Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) forests, but flowering is generally limited to forest openings. Flowering and fruiting typically much reduced or absent in dense shade in all community types.
  • Very sensitive to sulfur dioxide pollution and may be a useful indicator for monitoring acid rain.
  • Evidence suggests that fire suppression may be having an adverse impact on bear habitat in some areas. Once-productive berry fields are being invaded by conifers. Since plants beneath a forest canopy generally produce few berries, fruit production has been steadily declining in many areas.

Fire:

  • Sprouts from the stem base or rhizomes after aboveground foliage is removed or damaged by fire. Some seed may be transported to burned sites by birds and mammals.
  • Appears to be well adapted to a regime of fairly frequent fires. Old clones decline in vigor, but periodic fires initiate vigorous sprouting and regrowth.
  • Fire is a particularly common influence in northern boreal forests where velvetleaf blueberry grows as an understory dominant or codominant.

Associates:

  • Trees: Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea), Red Maple (Acer rubrum), Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera), Tamarack (Larix laricina), White Spruce (Picea glauca), Black Spruce (Picea mariana), Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana), Red Pine (Pinus resinosa), White Pine (Pinus strobus), Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides)
  • Shrubs: Bog Birch (Betula pumila), Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), Creeping Snowberry (Gaultheria hispidula), Bog Laurel (Kalmia polifolia), Labrador Tea (Ledum groenlandica), Twinflower (Linnaea borealis), Late Low Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium)
  • Herbs: Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis), Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense), Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum)
  • Ground Covers: Reindeer Lichen (Cladonia spp.) and various mosses
  • Mammals: White-tailed deer and eastern cottontail browse the leaves and twigs. White-tailed deer, black bear, red fox, porcupine, raccoon, mice, chipmunks, squirrels, and skunks feed on the fruit. In parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin, the reproductive success of black bears is reduced in years of Vaccinium crop failure. Blueberries are an extremely important food source for bears. In many areas, bear-human conflicts are most likely to occur during years of Vaccinium berry crop failure. Bears typically exploit areas with dense concentrations of berries.
  • Birds: gray catbird, towhees, spruce, ruffed, blue, sharp-tailed grouse, American robin, American crow, bluebirds, and many other small birds consume velvetleaf blueberry fruit.

History:

  • Vaccinium berries were traditionally an important food source for many native American peoples..

Uses:

  • The sweet, tart fruit is eaten fresh or used in pies, pastries, jam, and ice cream. Large numbers of recreationists seek out and harvest these berries throughout the Great Lakes Region. During the 1970's, approximately 20% of total visitor hours were dedicated to blueberry picking in several National Forests of northern Minnesota. By 1980, this had climbed to 30% in some locations.
  • Fruits are sweet and contain high concentrations of both mono- and di-saccharides. Berries are rich in vitamin C, carbohydrates, and energy content but low in fats.
  • Velvetleaf blueberry grows with Late Low Blueberry in commercial blueberry fields of the Northeast. In some areas, velvetleaf blueberry may represent a significant part of the commercial crop, particularly in fields derived from woodlands. Most commercially grown fruit is processed as pie filling or is used in muffin mixes. Lesser amounts are used to make wine, juice, or freezed-dried products.
  • The cold hardy Velvetleaf Blueberry may have potential for breeding blueberry strains suited to northern climates. Its affinity for mineral soil also suggests that it may be useful for breeding plants adapted to upland sites.

Reproduction:

  • Reproduces by seed and vegetatively by rhizomes, however, regeneration after fire and other disturbance is primarily vegetative.
  • Vegetative regeneration: An extensive network of woody, much-branched rhizomes give rise to many fibrous roots and shoots. Rhizomes usually grow rapidly in several directions once plants reach 8"-12" in diameter. Depth, length, and annual radial growth rates appear to be highly variable. Rhizomes average approximately 1/8" in diameter and 3"-45' in length, typically from 2"-3.5" below the soil surface. Normal rhizome depth is apparently inversely related to the thickness of organic soil. Also sprouts from the stem base when disturbances such as fire destroy only portions of the aboveground foliage.
  • Seed: Begins fruiting during the third growing season. Self-sterile, requiring insect pollination for fruit set. Bees are the most common insect pollinators, with bumblebees (Bombus spp.) the most effective. In commercial blueberry fields containing both velvetleaf and late low blueberry, yields are often lower than in fields made up of only late low blueberry. Cross pollination apparently results in reduced fruit set.
  • Germination sporadic. Rates have ranged from 20%-30% in controlled laboratory experiments. Seeds typically germinate 18-82 days after planting; germination tends to be bimodal with large numbers of seeds germinating early and late. Seeds can germinate on mineral or organic soils when moisture and aeration are adequate. Seeds of most blueberries (Vaccinium spp.) are not dormant and require no pretreatment for germination, though seeds from black bear scats apparently germinate more readily than do those from uneaten fruit.
  • Seed dispersal by various birds and mammals. The American robin is a particularly effective dispersal agent. Fruit typically ripens just as birds are preparing for seasonal migrations.
  • Seedling establishment typically slow wherever significant competition is present. Plants may require 5 years to reach 6" diameter.
  • Berry production fluctuates annually according to the genetics of the individual clone, weather conditions, and insect availability. However, fruit production is often good and nearly all berries contain some viable seed. Pollinators are required for good fruit set and dry, warm weather during flowering generally results in more active insect pollinators and better fruit set. Late spring frosts can greatly reduce fruit production. Fruit production typically declines as clones age. Production often peaks 10 to 20 years after fire, just prior to canopy closure.

Propagation:

  • By hardwood cuttings or seed.
  • Germination generally best in 1:1 sand/peat mixtures at a pH of 4.5
  • Blueberry (Vaccinium spp.) seedlings grown indoors can be transplanted onto favorable sites 6-7 weeks after emergence.

Cultivation:

  • Prefers cool, acidic soils
  • Plants may be damaged by cold winter temperatures. Shrubs are often killed to ground level in the absence of a protective snow cover. Spring frost damage reportedly occurs at 30 degrees F and may be complete at 14 degrees F. Mulch those plants!

Links:

Boreal border
Last updated on 9 August 1998