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Thursday, June 24, 2004 11:00 am

Garden talk 6-24-04

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I can't think of a more beautiful, colorful, sweet fruit than blueberries. The highbush blueberry, Vaccinium corymbosum, is a woody perennial plant that is native to North America. The fruit was a staple for early settlers who used the berries in various food dishes and medicines. Because of the star-shaped calyx on top of the berry, North American natives called this fruit the "star berry."

In addition to flavorful fruit, blueberry plants are attractive ornamentals. This rounded bush has white flowers in the spring and bright red fall foliage color. Moist, well-drained, acidic soils with high organic matter are best for blueberries. Blueberries perform best in a soil with a pH between 4 to 5. Soils with a slightly higher pH than desired can be adjusted by incorporating granular sulfur into the soil before planting. Blueberries require at least 1 inch of water per week and will benefit from organic mulch to a depth of 4 inches.

This year in central Illinois, blueberries will ripen about the end of June. Depending on the weather, the season generally lasts a couple of weeks.

For optimal storage, keep covered berries in a refrigerator. To reduce water loss from the berries, store in moisture-proof containers. Blueberries will maintain their quality for 10 to 14 days after picking. When ready to use or eat, wash blueberries in cold water.

Blueberries are delicious raw or they can be included in pies, pancakes, muffins, syrup, coffee cakes or on top of ice cream. One cup of fresh blueberries provides 3 grams of dietary fiber and 15 percent of daily vitamin C, is low in fat, sodium and cholesterol free, and has about 83 calories. The downside to blueberries is that a large portion of the calories come from sugars. There are about 2 cups of blueberries in 1 pound.

For more information, go to the North American Blueberry Council's Web site at www.blueberry.org.

Pickin' and grinnin'

If you don't have your own blueberry plants, consider supporting local growers by picking your own (u-pick) at a local blueberry patch or buy fresh berries at a roadside market.

Pick berries in the morning after the dew has evaporated or later in the day when the fruit is naturally cool. Select fully ripe berries that are firm, dry, plump, and smooth. Berries should be deep purple, blue to blue-black, and have a powdery, silver-white bloom on the skins. They should be easy to remove from stems. Berries turn blue three to four days before they attain maximum sweetness and flavor. Avoid picking green or reddish berries; they are not ripe. Size is not an indicator of maturity.

Decide how many pounds you will purchase before you visit a u-pick patch; once you get to picking it is hard to stop. Before leaving home, call for picking status. Only pick ripe berries, and don't leave them in the sun.

Here are a couple local u-picks that have blueberries:

• Jefferies Orchard, located five miles north of Springfield off of Route 29 at 1016 Jefferies Rd., 487-7582.

• Fromm-Huff Farm, located near Pleasant Plains, at 10998 Salisbury Rd., 626-1583. Take Rt. 97 North through Salisbury, turn left at Pleasant Plains sign onto Pleasant Plains-Salisbury blacktop, go about 3 miles. Fromm-Huff Farm is on the south side of the road.

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