Combining tenacity with taste, Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists in Poplarville, Miss., have bred three new blueberry cultivars that can take the heat of growing in the South while offering high yields of plump, phytonutrient-rich fruit.
Dixieblue, Gupton and DeSoto are the latest offerings from a blueberry breeding program begun in 1971 at the ARS Southern Horticultural Laboratory in Poplarville, Miss.
With the exception of the so-called rabbiteye varieties, locally grown blueberries were nonexistent in Mississippi 30 years ago, primarily because of that Gulf Coast state's heat, humidity, abundant insects and occasional late-spring freezes. But when Hurricane Camille wiped out the region's tung oil industry in 1969, ARS researchers went to work developing blueberries as a viable alternative crop.
Thirteen blueberry cultivars and 2,500 acres later, the ARS Poplarville lab is busier than ever furnishing Mississippi's burgeoning blueberry industry with heat-tolerant plants whose fruit embodies the flavor, firmness and shelf life that consumers and processors desire.
Take Gupton, for example. In storage tests conducted by ARS horticulturist Donna Marshall, the cultivar's berries remained plump and juicy for more than 30 days under normal refrigeration.
DeSoto, a new rabbiteye variety developed by ARS plant geneticist Stephen Stringer, has potential to extend the Gulf Coast rabbiteye season by up to three weeks. In Mississippi, this usually ends around the first week of July, according to Stringer. DeSoto's berries also don't suffer from splitting, which bursts open the fruit after it becomes waterlogged, such as from an afternoon rain shower.
Dixieblue, a highbush cultivar, yields light-blue, medium-sized berries with a slightly flattened shape. Besides breeding and storage tests, the Poplarville team's research includes determining the best time to harvest berries for optimal flavor and elevated levels of antioxidants, especially anthocyanins and phenolics.
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