Column: Blueberries return to southern city, though not at longtime fixture

Breaking a recent dry spell, drops of rain gather on blueberries at Cullipher Farm in southern Virginia Beach on Saturday, May 29. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]
Ed. — Archived from the Sunday, June 6, print edition.


VIRGINIA BEACH — It’s blueberry time in Pungo.

Cullipher Farm Market opened their blueberry orchard for picking in late May, and farmer Mike Cullipher expects the season to extend at least through this month. 

This year’s crop arrived on schedule, and some unusually hot May days prompted the berries to ripen faster and produced an early bumper crop.

To many locals who are accustomed to picking berries in July, it seems a little strange that blueberry and strawberry season should overlap.

The berries that are ripening now are southern highbush, an earlier variety than the rabbiteye blueberries that have traditionally been grown in this area, Cullipher said.

Commonly cultivated varieties of blueberries include southern highbush, which needs relatively mild winters to survive, the northern highbush, which can grow as far north as parts of Canada, and the rabbiteye, which really isn’t too finicky and grows in much of the East Coast.

“We’re pushing the limit on raising the southern highbush here,” Culliper said, adding that they aren’t widely raised north of southeastern North Carolina because they’re not as cold tolerant as the rabbiteye.

Cullipher said that one reason he chose to grow the southern highbush is because he liked the idea of having blueberries that would overlap with strawberry season. He has about two acres of these berries, and he’s also growing one-and-one-half acres of rabbiteyes, but it will be another year before these young plants will produce enough berries for the market.

Meanwhile, locals are going to have a harder time finding blueberries midsummer because Pungo Blueberries Etc., which opened in 1984, has closed permanently after coming close to doing so in 2020.

“We truly are retired,” said Juanita Burns, who established the farm with her husband, Robert Burns.

The couple has removed most of their plants, she added, but they’ve kept a few for their own enjoyment and for possible use by a contractor, who may pick and sell the berries to local farm markets.

So, all isn’t lost.

But for me, and I suspect many others, midsummer will seem strange this year without blueberry picking, which has become a local tradition in the past four decades. I don’t remember blueberries being grown widely around here until Pungo Blueberries opened. It was then that I first fell in love with blueberries, which are as sweet as candy.

These berries are also a little easier to pick than strawberries because they grow on bushes. There’s not as much bending, and the bushes politely offer berries on varying levels so it’s easy for children and adults of all heights to reach them. The southern highbush plants range from about waist-high to almost shoulder-high, Cullipher said. 

Recent dry weather has been good for the blueberries, according to Cullipher. 

My own observation – based on no scientific research or expert opinions – is that the berries do indeed seem plumper and sweeter in dry weather.  

The other thing that I’ve noticed about them, though, is that they seem very moisture-tolerant and don’t deteriorate quickly in rainy conditions as some other fruits do.

After you’ve had fun picking them, what’s the best way to eat them?  

First, they’re great for snacking straight from your basket, but they’re also wonderful made into jams or cooked into pancakes, muffins or desserts.

Cullipher said that he particularly enjoys eating them with vanilla ice cream, and he also loves blueberry cobbler.

Visit Cullipher Farm on Facebook via @cullipherfarm or call (757) 721-7456 for more information. 

The author is a contributor to The Independent News. Her journalism has also appeared in The Virginian-Pilot.

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