Vaccinium berries can be found in nearly all zones. All require acidic soil, either naturally acidic or amended to be acidic. Although most common, commercially available berries (like cranberries and blueberries) are pretty much understood to be one of just a few varieties, lots of locally grown, wild, blue-purple-or-red berries may have different regional names like whortleberries, blaeberries, bilberries, or even razzleberries and may be known as 'blueberries' although they may not be blue.
Who knew the huckleberry of Mark Twain's famous character, Huckleberry Finn, was a actual berry? Not I. The huckleberry is a common name for various small berries in this group.
From the 'Ōhelo berry (native to Hawaii, USDA zones 10-11) to the lingonberry (native to Scandanavia, Canada, Finland and other cold places), berries in the Vaccinium family are so acidic themselves that they aren't hard to preserve. You don't need to add pectin to jell if you're making jelly; these berries are anxious to jell all by themselves. In fact, the Lingonberry (made familiar to American consumers by IKEA) was often preserved just by mashing it with sugar or storing it in fresh water. About Scandanavian food suggests the following other names for lingonberries: "red whortleberries, cowberries, fox berries, mountain cranberries, mountain bilberries, or partridgeberries," and that's just a list of the names in English. The lingonberry marketing people suggest the name lingonberry instead of, for instance, cowberry!
Cranberries (V. caesariense) are slender, trailing, wiry non-woody shoots and strongly reflexed flower petals. Cranberry producers often flood the fields or bogs to facilitate harvest. As I said above, there is so much pectin in cranberries that they are totally easy to jell; add sugar (for taste) and cook (to preserve) to make jam or whole berry "sauce." Cranberry juice and dried cranberries typically have way too much added sugar to be health food, but appeal to kids and old folks. Cook (to burst and liquefy berries) and preserve.
Read more in the first article I ever wrote for Davesgarden.com here, all about cranberries. Cranberries are even more popular than they were in 2007. Now the dried berries (sold under the tradename Craisins™) are nearly as popular as cranberry sauce and cranberry juice.
Other species like blueberry, bilberry, blaeberry, are also included in the Vaccinium family. Because berries have more peel per berry than grapes or apples, they are more healthy! You can't peel them, so you're stuck with the healthy part like you can with potatoes. (You're welcome to peel potatoes, apples and carrots.)
Native to Hawaii is the 'Ōhelo berry. While growing far outside the typical climate for Vaccinium, 'Ōhelo berries are similar in appearance and flavor--and health benefits. Not as well researched as the cranberry (V. macrocarpon) or the blueberry (V. caesariense), 'Ōhelo berries, like other Vaccinium berries are tart and packed with vitamins.
Blueberries are the second most popular berry in the US (the strawberry is first). Daves Garden did an entire series on blueberries back in 2007. Blueberries are renowned for their health benefits now, like the cranberry, and medical research is focussing on blueberries as more than just a tasty addition to a bowl of cereal or pancakes. Like most berries, blueberries have a flavinoids concentrated in the tiny peels, are fragile when picked and are popular as additions to baked goods like pancakes, muffins and breads. Blueberries are dried for addition to baked goods.
Why are these particular berries so healthy?
1. The acidic soil, maybe?
All Vaccinium berries grow best in heathy, acidic soils. Growers should adjust the pH of their soils to be like the soil of a pine forest, carpeted with pine needles or peat and tending to the acidic. The pH of soil is often reflected in the color (to wit, hydrangeas) or flavor (...the tangy flavor?...) of the plants, if not in the health of the plant.
2. How about that tiny little peel?
My own theory is that Vaccinium berries' tart, edible peel is responsible for their healthiness. We've all heard that we should eat peels (when they're edible) instead of peeling our fruits and vegetables. Although peels like citrus and banana are not recommended, most other peels are. Cucumber? Gag it down. Potato? All the vitamins are right there. Apple? Some folks eat apple cores and seeds, too! Is this related to why the berries are so healthy, that we cannot actually peel cranberries, blueberries and huckleberries?
3. Not too sweet?
Unlike grapes, bananas and dates, Vaccinium berries have the a tangy flavor that makes them tasty. Is that same tanginess attached to the vitamins?
Berries possess a high proportion of antioxidants and vitamin-packed flavinoids, and are among the healthiest fruits you can eat. Overall, berries have more fiber per bite and more health-protecting compounds per mouthful.Whatever you think of my theories, everyone can agree that V. berries are tasty and healthy. Try some today. No matter your climate, you can probably find a V. berry that is happy to grow there. Please investigate whether a V. berry is right for you.
Grow your own berries from the Vaccinium group if you can; but if not, buy them and eat them.