In winter, one of the fruits I find in abundance here in North Florida is sparkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum), a native cousin of blueberry which contains many of the same health-promoting purple anthocyanin pigments as blueberry. They grow wild here, and I can harvest all I want for free.
Sparkleberries are native all over Southeastern North America. In my area they grow in the sand hills, on deciduous, many-branched shrubs about three to fifteen feet (1-5 meters) tall. Sometimes the plants even grow into small trees. The berries ripen here in November, and often stay on the plants in good edible condition right through the winter into February, even after a hard freeze. The size of the crop varies from year to year, but many times the plants are covered with thousands and thousands of sparkleberries.
Sparkleberry fruits are smaller than most blueberries, about a half-centimeter in diameter, they’re dark purplish-black, and they have a much drier flesh than their cultivated blueberry cousin. I enjoy eating them out of hand, but I’m a pretty hardcore fruit geek, and not everyone likes them that way as much as I do. I find it’s important to adjust your expectations when you try sparkleberry for the first time: if you’re expecting something that tastes like blueberry, you might initially find the sparkleberry experience kind of disappointing. Even for me, when I first started eating sparkleberries it took me a little while to warm up to eating them out of hand, but I find the the more I eat them, the more the flavor grows on me. They’ve got their own pleasant flavor and texture, a bit mild and subtle to be sure, but a nice, distinctive fruity experience. You are not eating a blueberry, you are eating a sparkleberry. Now I really enjoy them as a healthy snack.
Just like their cousin blueberries, which are widely touted as a superfood because of their healthful purple anthocyanin pigments, sparkleberries appear to be loaded with antioxidant anthocyanins. One study analyzed the types of anthocyanins in sparkleberry and found them to be “extremely similar” to the types of anthocyanins in blueberries. If anything, sparkleberries might have even higher levels of these healthful purple compounds, judging by their intensely dark purple-black color. Eating lots of sparkleberries turns my tongue purple, a fun sign of high anthocyanin content in a fruit.
There’s a large and growing body of evidence that berries like these are really good things to include regularly in our diet. Scientists are actively investigating anthocyanins and other compounds in blueberries for potential cancer-fighting and anti-inflammatory effects, and there’s at least some evidence for a possible role in fighting dementia in older adults. Also closely related to sparkleberries in the genus Vaccinium are cranberries and billberries, two other fruits actively investigated for their potential antioxidant and anti-inflammatory health benefits. With so many potential health benefits, it seems a good idea to include a diversity of different berry species (as well as other fruits and vegetables) in your diet, so for me sparkleberry is one more addition to the fruity antioxidant mix.
The season for sparkleberries around here exactly complements the blueberry season: the main blueberry crop is in late spring to early summer, and sparkleberries are ripe and available from late fall into winter, so they’re a way to get the antioxidant power of fresh blueberries in your diet when cultivated blueberries are out of season.
Since many people don’t immediately take to the flavor of sparkleberries eaten out of hand, probably the way these berries can find more widespread appeal is as in ingredient in dishes, where they can add an antioxidant punch to all sorts of foods. They’re good in smoothies, which might be the best way to introduce them to people. I wonder if they could be dried and ground into a shelf-stable powder for adding to smoothies, similarly to how people process and use acai powder.
I’ve also found them good in fruit salads, and on chilly winter mornings when I start my day with a steaming hot bowl of oatmeal, I throw in a generous handful of sparkleberries to add a powerful antioxidant punch to my breakfast. I’m guessing that sparkleberry pancakes and sparkleberry muffins would be a fun and tasty way to get these berries into one’s diet.
If you want to try sparkleberries, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that if you live in the native range of this fruit in the southeastern US, you can get them for free, foraged from the wild. The bad news is that if you don’t live in that region, or even if you do live here and you want an easier way to get them than having to wild-harvest, you’re out of luck. As far as I can tell, there’s no commercial source for the fruits. If you do want to forage them, check with your local wild-foods experts about location and season (and of course never eat anything from the wild unless you are one-hundred percent certain you have correctly identified it as an edible).
Sparkleberry fruits seem to vary a lot from plant to plant in size, sweetness, and flavor. It would be great if we could find some selections with particularly large, sweet fruit to propagate and grow. If you do try foraging them, keep on the lookout for any superior plants.
The University of Florida has active research underway to find ways to use sparkleberry to improve the cultivated blueberry crop. One research avenue is to hybridize these two species in order to introduce some sparkleberry genes into blueberries. The other exciting project they’re trying is to graft blueberries onto sparklerry roots, to take advantage of sparkleberry’s amazing ability to grow and produce good crops of fruit in sandy soil, with zero care from humans. This method is showing a lot of promise, and it’s something I want to experiment with myself, so I’ll have more to say about it in a future post.
So far, I haven’t had success trying to propagate sparkleberry, either by cuttings or seeds. I’ve tried numerous times, with cuttings in all stages of growth, planting seeds fresh, storing the seeds in the refrigerator for weeks before planting, and still haven’t gotten any takes. Have you successfully started new sparkleberry plants? Please leave a comment and tell me how you did it.