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the web of life in southern Africa

Vaccinium (Cranberry, blueberry genus)

Life > eukaryotes > Archaeoplastida > Chloroplastida > Charophyta > Streptophytina > Plantae (land plants) > Tracheophyta (vascular plants) > Euphyllophyta > Lignophyta (woody plants) > Spermatophyta (seed plants) > Angiospermae (flowering plants) > Eudicotyledons > Order: Ericales > Family: Ericaceae

About 450 species, found worldwide with greatest diversity in South America and SE Asia. One species, Vaccinium exul, is native to southern Africa, occurring on the Drakensberg escarpment in Mpumalanga. At least three species are cultivated in southern Africa, including Cranberry Vaccinium macrocarpon and Blueberry (mainly Vaccinium corymbosum, Vaccinium australe and hybrids), which originate from North America.

About 450 species worldwide, one of which, Vaccinium exul, is native to southern Africa (Drakensberg escarpment in Mpumalanga). Berries of Vaccinium are dispersed widely by birds. Interspecies hybrids in Vaccinium are common. Wild Vaccinium berries have been harvested by people in many regions and have been referred to by various names such as: Whortleberry, Blue Huckleberry, Bilberry, Whinberry, Lingonberry, Sparkleberry, Cowberry and Deerberry. The main origin of commercially grown Vaccinium species is North America where cranberries and blueberries come from. 


A number of closely related species are known as cranberries, but the only cranberry grown commercially is Vaccinium macrocarpon, which is native to North America where it grows wild in seasonally flooded acid bogs. Cultivation involves taking cuttings of wild plants and planting them in artificial bogs with controlled flooding. Cultivation dates back to about 1815 when cranberries were planted at Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Besides the USA, cranberries are now being cultivated in other countries such as those in central Europe [also South Africa?, Australia?, New Zealand?]. Hybrid cultivars have been developed but evidently favoured varieties for planting are still those from wild stock.


Blueberries come from a variety of different Vaccinium species occurring in eastern North America. There are about 10 species of lowbush blueberry and about 12 species of highbush blueberry and, to make matters even more complex, there are hybrids between these two different groups. The main blueberry cultivars planted these days, originate from the highbush species Vaccinium corymbosum and V. australe and their hybrids. Hybrids cultivars of lowbush and highbush species are also grown commercially. Lowbush blueberries are harvested from wild-growing plants that are encouraged to spread and grow through environmental manipulation (e.g. clearing away grass and burning). 


  • Sauer, J.D. 1993. Historical geography of crop plants - a select roster. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.

Text by Hamish Robertson