Companion Plants: Vaccinium - Family: Ericaceae
Langley, British Columbia
Reprinted from the Fraser South Chapter April 2005 newsletter
Huckleberry, blueberry, cranberry - that's what I think of when I read Vaccinium, but actually throughout the world there are as many as 450 species, ranging from tiny creeping vines to large tree-like plants, from the Arctic to the tropics. We may not think of them as landscape material because of their more obvious food/farm value, but they have features that make them very attractive in any mixed garden. The huge bonus is SNACKS to reward you for slaving away in your garden in the heat of the summer rather than sitting on the patio in the shade with a beverage!
There are more than ten species native to British Columbia, and my favorite of these is Vaccinium parviflorum, the red huckleberry (Zone 5). I can't walk through any of our local forests in winter without marveling at the way they sprout from the tops of old cedar stumps like fanciful hats. The tracery of the delicate branches is magical in the early morning frosts. If I were lucky enough to have a woodland garden, I would surely have a stump upon which to seed one.
The highland blueberry, Vaccinium corymbosum (Zone 4) is native to eastern North America, and has been hybridized extensively for commercial food production in many parts of the continent. Even though it is usually seen on large farms in much of the lower mainland [of British Columbia], even two or three plants in your garden are a welcome addition. Red winter twigs to cut for Christmas decoration, apple-blossom pink flower clusters in spring, glossy foliage and luscious blue fruit in summer, and brilliant leaves of red and gold in fall all combine to offer more than many cultivated ornamental shrubs. There are early, mid-season and late fruiting varieties, and flavors from mild to sweet/tart for your discerning palate. Visit U-pick farms and speak with the growers about the different varieties, and do lots of sampling to find your favorite. These will all grow easily in moist acidic soil that drains well in winter, preferably in full sun, and need roughly a 5 x 5-foot space to mature. Pruning is rarely needed except for dead or damaged wood.
Another favorite is Vaccinium vitis-idaea, the lingonberry, legendary as an accompaniment to Swedish meatballs - YUM! A very hardy evergreen species (Zone 3), widespread in Arctic and alpine regions of Europe, Asia, and North America, it grows only about 10 inches tall and suckers to form a small thicket in sun or part shade. Typical tiny pinkish bell flowers turn to shiny red berries ¼ inch wide. The larger fruited form 'Koralle' is a prolific producer, and a smaller overall version, V. vitis-idaea ssp. minus, has deep pink flowers, and grows only 8 inches tall. Even if you don't care to eat these tart little beauties, they are highly decorative in the garden.
Let's count the great values here - branch pattern and color; glossy and colored foliage; delicate pink and white spring flowers; delicious waffle sauce; hot steaming muffins; cobbler with ice-cream - oh, stop right there! Are there any other shrubs that offer all these treats?
Colleen Forster is a member of the Fraser South Chapter.