Gardeners often seek native plants because of their adaptability to an area and their attractiveness to native birds, butterflies, and other creatures. Sparkleberry is a plant with much to offer those seeking an attractive and useful addition to their landscape.
Sparkleberry (Vacinnium arboreum) is a deciduous large shrub or small tree native to the southeastern United States (USDA zones 6 to 9). As a member of the Ericaceae (heath) family, it shares a kinship with other family members such as Rhododendron and Leucothoe (doghobble). Other members of the Vaccinium genus include blueberries, huckleberries, cranberries, bilberry, whortleberry, and others.
Sparkleberry is variable in size according to growing conditions and location and may be anywhere from 6 to 30 feet tall and 4 to 15 feet wide. Leaves are simple, alternate, obovate to eliptic, and anywhere from one to three inches in length. Summer foliage is dark green and glossy above but paler beneath. In the Deep South, leaves are quite persistent, often hanging on for most of the year. Farther north, they drop with the onset of winter. Fall foliage color is deep red.
Several characteristics contribute to the attractiveness of sparkleberry and make it a prime candidate for landscapes. Exfoliating bark and branches showing tints and shades of gray, rich brown, orange and reddish brown; contorted branches, and a crooked trunk and branches give sparkleberry a distinctive appearance. In addition, tiny, white, bell-shaped flowers occur in clusters (racemes or panicles) which cover the plant in early spring, and they are followed by green fruits that turn black as they ripen. The persistent fruits are not very tasty for us humans, but many species of birds and other wildlife relish it.
Sparkleberry is adaptable to a wide range of soils from acid to alkaline. It can be found growing almost anywhere, from the most arid sand dunes and dry, sterile hillsides to such moist sites as creek banks and wet bottomlands. This wide range of adaptability partly explains its wide size range. Best growth occurs in moist, acid soils. Both full sun and shade are tolerated, but fruiting and flowering are best in full sun. With such a wide range of adaptability, a place can be found in almost every garden for a sparkleberry.
Benefit to Wildlife
Sparkleberry is an ideal tree to plant for wildlife. Henry’s elfin butterfly, the striped hairstreak, and elf butterflies use it as a larval food plant, and many other butterflies nectar on the flowers. The fruits attract a wide range of songbirds, including brown thrasher, tufted titmouse, mockingbird, American robin and others. Bobwhite quail and black bear eat the berries, and the spring flowers are attractive to bees. Several species of rabbits and hares, chipmunks and other small mammals feed on the twigs and leaves. In some areas white-tailed deer browse tree sparkleberry, but it has low to medium palatability to them.
Softwood cuttings taken in spring or hardwood cuttings of unbranched shoots of the previous season’s growth will take root, but the process requires patience and persistence, as sparkleberry is notoriously hard to root. Plants can be started from seeds which need to be stratified for 60-90 days at 41°F and then sown on the top of a growing medium as they must be exposed to light if they are to germinate.
Because sparkleberry is adaptable to so many different soil types, it is sometimes used as rootstock for some edible types of blueberries. Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) is sometimes grafted onto sparkleberry rootstock. This enables people who do not have acid soil required by blueberries a better chance for success.
Although underutilized as a landscape plant in most of its range, sparkleberry has great potential. It offers usefulness to wildlife, attractive glossy spring and summer foliage, spring flowers, shiny black blueberries, and colorful fall foliage. The twisted trunk and limbs are visually pleasing as is the attractive, exfoliating bark. These qualities add up to a useful, attractive, easy-to grow, drought-tolerant native plant that will beautify your property for years to come.
Hardiness: USDA Zones 6-9
Salt tolerance: Slight
Family: Ericaceae (Heath)
Size: 6-30 ft. tall, 4-15 ft. wide
Other common names: Farkleberry, tree huckleberry
Origin: Southeastern United States
Relatives: Rhododendron spp. (azalea); Leucothoe axillaris (coastal doghobble)
Propagation: Cuttings (hard to root); seeds