The Blueberries and Allies

Mountain-laurel Trailing Arbutus Southern Highbush Blueberry Large Cranberry

What are they?

The Ericaceae (often known as the Heath Family) is a large and very diverse family, consisting mostly of woody shrubs, sub-shrubs and trees and found throughout most of the world. In North America, the best members of the family are the Vacciniums, the genus which includes the blueberries, huckleberries and cranberries. Although flowers in this family are five-petalled, many species have the petals fused to form a bell-shaped or tubular flower.

Where are they found?

This family is classicly recognised for its tolerance of heavily acid soils. As such they are often found forming a shrub layer in conifer forests.

Identification

Some members of the family are easily recognised when in flower, but the vacciniums can be notoriously difficult to identify and care should be taken to study leaf and stem details, especially for the presence and absence of hairs (and, if present, the distribution of hairs), whether the leaves are green or whitish below and whether the leaf margins have teeth or are smooth. Note that the flowers of many species may be either white or pink (sometimes fading to white as they age).

Technical terms that it is useful to know when identifying this group are Bract and Pedicel. The bract is a leaf-like growth that usually grows from the stem beside a flower stalk or cluster of flower stalks. The pedicel is a technical name for a stalk which carries a flower (a stalk which carries more than one flower is called a peduncle).



Bearberry     Arctostaphylos uva-ursi

A common species in the New Jersey pine barrens but rare in Cape May with just a handful of old records from the county. Flowers May. A low, creeping, evergreen sub-shrub that carpets the ground in dry, sandy soil.
Bearberry Bearberry Bearberry Bearberry
Creeping habit
Flowers
Leaf
Fruit

Pink Azalea     Rhododendron periclymenoides

Widespread in New Jersey but uncommon in pine-barren and coastal habitats and rare in Cape Mape County. Occasionally found in undisturbed woods in the south of the county. Flowers May.
Pink Azalea Pink Azalea Pink Azalea Pink Azalea
Habit
Flowers
Flowers
Leaves

Pink Azalea Pink Azalea Pink Azalea
Leaf edge
Seed pods
Winter buds

Swamp Azalea     Rhododendron viscosum

Widespread and common in shady swamps and wet woods. Flowers June to July. The flowers have long, protruding stamens and the petal tube has stalked, sticky glands on it.
Swamp Azalea Swamp Azalea Swamp Azalea Swamp Azalea
Habit
Flowers
Sticky hairs on
flower tube
Leaf

Swamp Azalea Swamp Azalea Swamp Azalea
Leaf edge with
glandular hairs
Seed pods
Winter buds

Dwarf Azalea     Rhododendron atlanticum

A rare plant in New Jersey and currently known from just a couple of sandy woodland locations. Flowers May to June. Very similar to Swamp Azalea but much smaller, growing only to about two feet in height, and flowering a month or so earlier.
Dwarf Azalea Dwarf Azalea Dwarf Azalea Dwarf Azalea
Habit
Flowers
Leaf
Leaf underside

Dwarf Azalea
Seed pods
Winter buds

Sheep-laurel     Kalmia angustifolia

A low-growing sub-shrub, typically less than two feet in height, found in favored places in woodland in the north of the county. Flowers late May to June. Similar in appearance to Mountain-laurel, but flowers are a much richer pink and the plant is much smaller and never dominant.
Sheep-laurel Sheep-laurel Sheep-laurel Sheep-laurel
Habit
Flowers
Leaves
Leaves

Sheep-laurel
Old seed capsules

Mountain-laurel     Kalmia latifolia

A common and often dominant large, spreading shrub of acid woodland, especially common in Belleplain State Forest where it often forms almost impenetrable thickets. Flowers late May to early July. Despite the name, this species is common in lowlands.Spectacular and readily identified when in flower. Leaves leathery, shiny, often with a yellowish petiole and mid-rib.
Mountain-laurel Mountain-laurel Mountain-laurel
Habit
Flowers
Leaf

Mountain-laurel Mountain-laurel
Dried fruit in winter
Bark

Sand-myrtle     Kalmia buxifolia

Not currently known to occur in Cape May County but locally common in parts of the pine barrens. Flowers late April to early May. A classic pine barren species which is very local in distribution but may form large communities of low shrubs, up to two feet high, which can look spectacular when covered in flowers. Leaves variable in shape but always small, thick and evergreen.
Sand-myrtle Sand-myrtle Sand-myrtle Sand-myrtle
Habit
Habit
Flowers
Flowers

Sand-myrtle Sand-myrtle Sand-myrtle
Leaves
Leaf
Seed capsules

Maleberry     Lyonia ligustrina

An understory shrub, usually typically found in wet or swampy woodland. Flowers May to July. Flowers distinguished by being small and spherical. Leaves rather non-descript but have netted venation and minutely toothed margins.
Maleberry Maleberry Maleberry Maleberry
Habit
Flowers
Flowers close-up
Seed capsules

Maleberry Maleberry Maleberry Maleberry
Leaf
Leaf underside
Leaf edge
Winter twig

Staggerbush     Lyonia mariana

An understory shrub, more typical of the coastal pine barrens but not uncommon in woodland openings and powerline cuts in the northern part of Cape May County, becoming less common southward. Flowers late May to June. Flowers distinguished by being rather parallel-sided in profile and having longish, leafy sepals. Leaves rather non-descript but have netted venation and untoothed margins.
Staggerbush Staggerbush Staggerbush Staggerbush
Habit
Flowers close-up
Stems often with
red at leaf nodes
Leaf

Staggerbush Staggerbush Staggerbush Staggerbush
Leaf underside and edge
Fresh seed capsules
Seed capsules persist
through winter
Winter twig

Leatherleaf     Chamaedaphne calyculata

A rather localized low shrub of pristine peat bogs, but can be abundant where it occurs. Flowers late April to May. Leaves have a silvery or rusty look to them, especially underneath, and are stiff and leathery.
Leatherleaf Leatherleaf Leatherleaf Leatherleaf
Leaves
Flowers
Leaf upperside
Leaf underside
Leatherleaf Leatherleaf Leatherleaf
Young seed capsules
Leaves bronzy
in winter
Winter twig

Swamp Sweetbells     Eubotrys racemosa

A common understory shrub in wet woodland. Flowers mid May to early June. The flowers have a fabulous scent which fills the woods with their fragrance in still days in late May. The flowers are arranged in horizontal rows on short, woody spurs and the leaves are pointed, with finely toothed edges.
Swamp Sweetbells Swamp Sweetbells Swamp Sweetbells
Flowers
Leaves
Leaf

Swamp Sweetbells Swamp Sweetbells Swamp Sweetbells
Seed capsules persist
through winter
Winter twig
Bark

Trailing Arbutus     Epigaea repens

An uncommon and easily overlooked sub-shrub which creeps along the ground and is often largely covered in leaf litter. Typically found in dry, acid soils beneath conifers, especially pines. Flowers April to May.
Trailing Arbutus Trailing Arbutus Trailing Arbutus Trailing Arbutus
Habit
Flowers
Flower
Leaf

Checkerberry     Gaultheria procumbens

(Wintergreen, Eastern Teaberry) A widespread, low, creeping species of dry woodland. Flowers July to August. The berries of this plant have a familiar smell, as it is used as a commercial source for wintergreen.
Checkerberry Checkerberry Checkerberry Checkerberry
Habit
Habit
Flower
Fruit

Early Lowbush Blueberry     Vaccinium pallidum

(Blue Ridge Blueberry) An easily overlooked understory sub-shrub, typically found growing in dry woodland beneath taller blueberry species. Flowers May. Compared with other blueberries, leaves are rather stiff and rounded, have well-marked, netted venation and bristly edges.
Early Lowbush Blueberry Early Lowbush Blueberry Early Lowbush Blueberry Early Lowbush Blueberry
Habit
Flower
Leaf
Leaf underside

Early Lowbush Blueberry Early Lowbush Blueberry
Fruit
Winter buds

Late Lowbush Blueberry     Vaccinium angustifolium

A low-growing species of blueberry which can be locally common in sandy pine barrens habitats. Not recorded from Cape May County but may occur in the northern part of the region. Flowers May. The combination of low growth and narrow, pointed leaves is distinctive.
Late Lowbush Blueberry Late Lowbush Blueberry Late Lowbush Blueberry Late Lowbush Blueberry
Habit
Flower
Leaves
Leaf underside

Southern Highbush Blueberry     Vaccinium formosum

This is a large shrub, famous for producing some our favorite commercial blueberries. It is a common and often dominant understory shrub in all kinds of wet and dry, acid woodlands. Flowers May to June. Identification of highbush blueberries can be difficult as the complex was split into several species, each of which is somewhat variable in its leaf detail. Generally told from other tall blueberry species by its leaves which are green beneath, toothless on the margin and usually hairless or with just a few hairs (note that there are varieties of this species with fine teeth (var. albiflorum) or with larger teeth and whitened beneath (var. glabrum)).
Southern Highbush Blueberry Southern Highbush Blueberry Southern Highbush Blueberry Southern Highbush Blueberry
Flowers
Flowers
Leaves
Leaf underside

Southern Highbush Blueberry Southern Highbush Blueberry
Fruit
Winter twig

New Jersey Blueberry     Vaccinium caesariense

Uncommon in damp soil. Flowers May to June. Very hard to separate from the much more common Southern Highbush Blueberry but usually has leaves that are slightly whitish below. Leaves are hairless and tend to be widest at or above the middle.
New Jersey Blueberry New Jersey Blueberry New Jersey Blueberry New Jersey Blueberry
Habit
Leaves
Leaf
Leaf underside

Black Highbush Blueberry     Vaccinium fuscatum

Local but may be common where it is found, in bottomland woods and damp, sandy soils in shady woodland. Flowers April to June. A slightly odd plant as it grows tall like a typical highbush blueberry but has small, black fruits similar to those of the huckleberries. Leaves pale below and slightly woolly; fruits black without a bloom or pruinescence on them.
Black Highbush Blueberry Black Highbush Blueberry Black Highbush Blueberry
Flowers
Leaves
Leaf underside

Black Highbush Blueberry Black Highbush Blueberry Black Highbush Blueberry Black Highbush Blueberry
Habit in fruit
Fruit
Winter bud
Bark

Large Cranberry     Vaccinium macrocarpon

A native species and common in wet sphagnum bogs in swampy ground. Flowers July to September. A tiny sub-shrub that trails on the ground and is easily missed when not in flower. This is the species that is cultivated to provide edible Cranberries, so is perhaps now more common than it once was as a native species. Sadly most, if not all, of Cape May's cranberry bogs have been abandoned and, although many fall within wildlife management areas or state parks few, if any, are being managed and encroaching scrub will soon deprive us of a great many plant species that need open sphagnum bog to survive.
Large Cranberry Large Cranberry Large Cranberry Large Cranberry
Flower and leaf
Flower close-up
Leaf
Fruit

Tall Huckleberry     Gaylussacia frondosa

(Dangleberry, Blue Huckleberry) A common low shrub of both wet and dry woodland. Flowers May to June. Leaves have a slightly bluish (glaucous) look and have yellow resin dots. Flowers and fruits are on longer stems than other species, giving the alternative English name of Dangleberry.
Tall Huckleberry Tall Huckleberry Tall Huckleberry Tall Huckleberry
Flowers
Flower close-up
Leaves
Leaf underside

Tall Huckleberry Tall Huckleberry
Fruit
Winter twig

Black Huckleberry     Gaylussacia baccata

A very common low shrub of both wet and dry woodland. Flowers May to June. Leaves are untoothed and have yellowish resin dots on both surfaces. This is the species that carpets large areas of ground in dry pine-oak forest.
Black Huckleberry Black Huckleberry Black Huckleberry Black Huckleberry
Habit
Flowers
Leaf
Fruit

Black Huckleberry
Winter twig

Dwarf Huckleberry     Gaylussacia dumosa

A low, spreading shrub of both wet and dry woodland. Flowers May to June. Leaves are untoothed and have yellowish resin dots on both surfaces. Young stems are very downy and also have yellowish glands on them.
Dwarf Huckleberry Dwarf Huckleberry Dwarf Huckleberry Dwarf Huckleberry
Habit
Flowers
Leaf
Stems with glandular hairs

Dwarf Huckleberry
Fruit

Broom-crowberry     Corema conradii

A rare, boreal plant that has an outlying population in the New Jersey pine barrens. Flowers March. This plant is included here as some reference sources list the species for Cape May County, but its rarity and very specialized habitat requirements make it unlikely that it occurs here - but you never know! A low, conifer-like sub-shrub growing to no more than 18 inches high - and often much less. Flowers without petals, appearing at the tips of the shoots in early spring.
Broom-crowberry Broom-crowberry Broom-crowberry Broom-crowberry
Habit
Flowers
Leaves
Seed pods