A Perennial Flower That Grows Tall And Has Bells Delavay’s Blueberry (Vaccinium delavayi)

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Delavay’s Blueberry (Vaccinium delavayi)

Whether we know it or not, most of us are familiar with the genus Vaccinium because its members include current or potential commercial crops such as blueberries, cranberries, bilberries, and huckleberries. The vaccine, however, is purely ornamental, and is unlikely to be our next export success.

The name Vaccinium is an ancient name taken directly from Latin: it was used to refer to the whortleberry, Vaccinium myrtillus. Like many Chinese plants, Vaccinium Delavaye is named after the French Jesuit missionary Abbé Jean Marie Delavaye (1838–95), who discovered and cultivated the plant. He was also responsible for introducing well-known plants such as Abies delawayi, Magnolia delawayi and Osmanthus delawayi into our gardens.

Native to Burma and southwestern China, Vaccinium delawayi is a hardy evergreen shrub with small, rounded leaves that are hard and leathery. In spring they produce clusters of small, bell-shaped to almost round, white flowers that open from pink buds. Flowers in the style of Pieris, Gaultheria, Andromeda and many other closely related species in the Erica family.

As beautiful as the flowers are, the real charm of this little blueberry lies in the deep bluish-black berries that follow. They are very similar to small blueberries and have a similar flavor but are more acidic without being too ripe. Even though picking berries might be embarrassing, you’ll feel like it too, since birds have no such reservations.

While rarely a showy plant, Vaccinium delavayi is attractive all year round and always interesting, whether as a flowering, fruiting or even neat foliage plant. It is an ideal specimen for a rockery or a partially shaded corner. It grows to about 45 cm tall × 60 cm wide and can be kept neatly on a small mound. However, any pruning will adversely affect flowering or fruiting.

As any blueberry grower will tell you, vaccinium plants prefer acidic soil conditions. Small ornamental species grown with plants from the Erica family such as dwarf rhododendron, evergreen azalea, Erica, columnus and Pieris are mostly at home.

The native New Zealand Gaultheria species are interesting plants to combine with Vaccinium delawayi. Gaultheria crassa, in particular, resembles its Chinese relative and provides a good example of how plants growing under similar conditions resemble each other even when thousands of kilometers apart.

Other small root bearing plants, especially those in the Apcris family, also make good companions. Alpine rockery will be full of interest and color all year round with good-bearing varieties of Pentachondra pumila, Leucopogon fraseri, Cythodes emperifolia, Gaultheria crassa and Vaccinium delavayi.

You won’t find vaccinations at every garden center, but you won’t have to look far to find a specimen. Try to look for perennials as well as shrubs, as they are often sold in smaller sizes and paired with rockery perennials.

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