954 Vaccinium arboreumCommon Names: sparkleberry, farkleberry, tree huckleberry Family: Ericaceae (heath Family)
North America's largest blueberry, sparkleberry is a picturesque little tree or large shrub with flaking reddish bark, a leaning crooked trunk, and twisted contorted branches. Although usually around 8-10 ft (2.4-3.1 m) tall, sparkleberry can get up to 30 ft (9.1 m) tall with a similar spread. (The three co-champions, in South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi, are 24 ft (7.3 m), 29 ft (8.8 m), and 47 ft (14.3 m) tall, with spreads of 33 ft (10.1 m), 45 ft (13.7 m) and 30 ft (9.1 m), respectively.)
The leaves are leathery, tardily deciduous, oval to nearly circular and 1-2 in (2.5-5.1 cm) long. They are dark green and shiny above, and paler with a network of veins beneath. The leaves persist on the tree for a year in the south, often turning rich purplish red in autumn; in colder regions, they drop off in winter. Sparkleberry blooms in late spring, with the fruits maturing in late summer. The white flowers are bell shaped with five lobes, about 1/3 in (0.5 cm) long, and arranged in profuse drooping clusters. The berries are shiny black, about 1/4 in (0.6 cm) in diameter. On the tip of each berry is a five-pointed star, the remains of the calyx. The berries often remain on the trees throughout winter.
Sparkleberry, Vaccinium arboreum, occurs in dry woods, hammocks, along streamsides, on bluffs and in open forests, usually growing in the dappled shade of the subcanopy, from Virginia to southern Illinois, south to to East Texas and south-central Florida.
CultureSparkleberry is nearly unique among the blueberries in that it can tolerate, and even thrive, on neutral to calcareous soils, and doesn't demand the highly acidic conditions that other blueberries require. Nevertheless, it thrives on acidic soils, too. Light: Full sun to partial shade. Moisture: Sparkleberry is highly tolerant of droughts. Hardiness: USDA Zones 6 - 9. Propagation: Sparkleberry can be propagated from cuttings, but this is said to be difficult. Seeds need light to germinate, and should be sown on the surface of the potting medium.
Sparkleberry is a very attractive shrub that deserves to be used in more landscapes. Once established it needs no special treatment and grows quickly, flowering in just a year or two at quite a small size. Still, it would take decades for a sparkleberry to get over 10 ft (3.1 m) tall. Sparkleberry tolerates all manner of soils and positions in the landscape, and needs no supplemental watering. Grown in full sun, sparkleberry produces abundant masses of showy white flowers, then masses of equally attractive shiny black berries. The glossy foliage is pretty most of the year, and the contorted structure and exfoliating reddish bark are handsome in late winter. Indeed, for xeriscaping and "native plant" landscaping, sparkleberry is one of the most attractive woodland shrubs there is. Available from native plant nurseries, sparkleberry is most useful in the understory beneath large oaks or pines, in casual mixed borders, or in natural hedges.
Sparkleberries are relished by all kinds of birds and wildlife. They can be eaten by people too, but they are bitter and not very good, and most references say they are inedible. (Former Arkansas governor, Frank White, earned the nickname, "Governor Farkleberry", after lamenting that, growing up, his family was so poor they had to eat farkleberries.) Extracts from the roots, bark and leaves have been used to treat diarrhea.
The blueberry genus includes about 450 species of shrubs, vines and small trees found throughout the Northern Hemisphere from the Arctic Circle to tropical mountains. There are a few species also in southern Africa. Of the 40 or so blueberry species in North America, only sparkleberry (and sometimes deerberry, V. stamineum) grow to tree size. Domesticated selections of rabbiteye blueberry ( V. ashei ) are cultivated for their fruit in the southern U.S., and selections of highbush blueberry (V. corombosum), are grown farther north, although many authors consider these to be but variants of a single wide-ranging and highly variable species. The cranberry (V. macrocarpon) is a low-growing evergreen blueberry that is cultivated (and grows wild) in acidic wetlands in northern North America.
Steve Christman 6/23/02; updated 2/25/04, 4/26/09, 11/5/11