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Growers and consumers alike stand to benefit from Gupton and Pearl, two new southern highbush blueberry cultivars developed by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) researchers in Poplarville, Miss.
In addition to high yields of plump, flavorful berries and vigorous growth, the new cultivars should give southern growers a jump on the lucrative, early-ripening fresh market, which starts in April and May.
According to Stephen Stringer, a geneticist with USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS), there's been limited acreage of southern highbush blueberries because their lack of vigor has made them difficult to grow. Gupton and Pearl are different because they were derived from crosses made among southern highbush germplasm with improved adaptation to the southeastern United States, says Stringer. He's with the Thad Cochran Southern Horticultural Research Laboratory, which is operated in Poplarville by ARS, the USDA's chief intramural scientific research agency.
Stringer collaborated on the cultivars' development, testing and release with ARS horticulturists Donna Marshall and James Spiers (retired) and ARS small-fruits breeder Arlen Draper (retired).
In Mississippi field trials, Gupton and Pearl flowered in mid to late April and were ready for harvest approximately 21 days before the earliest ripening rabbiteye cultivars, the predominant type grown in the South. The highbush cultivars produce firm, medium-to-large berries with light blue color and a high soluble-solids content, among other desirable traits. The cultivars themselves grow as cone-shaped, upright shrubs and have a chilling requirement (necessary for springtime blooms) of 400 to 500 hours at temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
Gupton, released in 2006, and Pearl, released in 2010, are finding their way into crop fields and nurseries as more propagative material becomes available from tissue-culture operations and softwood cuttings. Several nurseries have requested Pearl, and some Mississippi growers already have planted Gutpon in small commercial plots, Stringer reports.
Michigan, Maine, New Jersey and other northern states lead U.S. production, but year-round demand for the antioxidant-rich berry has given southern growers a chance to get a bigger piece of the action—especially the early-ripening fresh market, for which southern highbush blueberries are ideally suited.