Sparkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum) of the Heath (Ericaceae) family is a blueberry that adds persistent color to the fall-foliage palette. The genus name is ancient, but of no clear meaning–possibly from the Latin vaccinus, “of cows”. The specific epithet is from the Latin, meaning “tree-like”. Sparkleberry occurs from Texas to Kansas east to the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. In Arkansas, the plant occurs statewide except for especially low and wet areas. The common name “sparkleberry” refers to the shiny fruit. Other common names include farkleberry, tree huckleberry and winter huckleberry. The origin of “farkleberry” is unknown, but may be a misspelling of “sparkleberry”.
Sparkleberry occurs in a wide variety of well-drained habitats: wooded mountainous areas, rocky outcrops, stream banks and open fields. Preferred sites are dry, sandy to rocky soils overlying sandstone (i.e., preferring acidic soils like most blueberries). More robust plants, with the best fruit production, occur in sunny areas.
Sparkleberry is a shrub or small tree with single or multiple crooked to gnarly trunks and branches, typically growing from 5 to 10 feet tall, but occasionally reaching 20+ feet. Main stems of younger plants and trunks of older plants grow from a compact base. The crown may be leggy, spreading or arching, depending on plant age and site characteristics. All trunks, branches and twigs that are older than the current growing season are woody and rigid. Overall color of trunks and branches is a light to medium gray with reddish areas. Over the years, lower portions of the trunks lose their smaller branches. Finely textured bark may split into narrow exfoliating strips. The shrub is slow-growing, however vertical branches may grow 2 to 4 feet in a single season, as they reach into open areas of the crown.
New spring growth is from tips of previous year’s branches, producing a myriad of short, slender, straight, ascending twigs that become a light to dark gray as they “harden” over the growing season. New leaves quickly change from reddish to green. Fruit-bearing racemes (see below), which may terminate twigs, ultimately drop off.
Twigs bear alternate, simple, oval to elliptical leaves, some shrubs dominated by oval leaves, others by elliptical. Mature leaves have a shiny, medium to dark green adaxial (upper) surface and duller, lighter green abaxial (lower) surface. Leaves range from 1 to 3 inches long and ½ to 1¼ inches wide, along with short petioles (1/16 to 1/8 inch). The leathery (coriaceous) leaves typically have rounded to abruptly acute (mucronate) apexes with similarly shaped bases; however, larger leaves may have acuminate (gradually tapering) apexes and wedge-shaped bases. Margins are typically entire, but some leaves may have very short teeth. Leaf pubescence is absent except for short pubescence along principal abaxial veins. In mid-fall, leaves change to various shades of red to purple and, depending on temperatures and wind, may sparingly persist well into winter months.
Venation is pinnate, with adaxial veins being slightly suppressed and abaxial veins being slightly expressed. Five to seven secondary veins angle from the midrib toward the leaf apex, drifting toward the leaf margin, but become “lost” in the tangle of loopy tertiary veins. Elsewhere, tertiary veins connect with secondary veins to form a loopy-reticulated pattern.
Inflorescences, in late April into May, consist of flowers on twigs of the current season. Flowers are axillary or in terminal racemes, each raceme being a direct extension of the twig. Floral bracts become more or less reduced distally. To 2½ inches long, racemes bear up to a dozen dangling flowers, arranged alternately along the finely pubescent reddish rachis. Flowers are on slender light green pedicels, ½ to ¾ inch long.
At bud-stage, the pale green flower buds have five prominent ribs with sunken areas in between, marking the center-lines of 5 sepals. With anthesis, seemingly inflated white (to slightly pink) corolla tubes become broadly bowl-shaped, narrowing at the tip into 5 short, reflexed lobes that create a small down-facing opening. The corolla is set in a short, pale green, bell-shaped (campanulate) glabrous calyx with 5 short-triangular lobes that press against the corolla’s base. Blooms extend sequentially from lowermost axillary flowers to flowers at raceme tips. Flowers are fragrant.
Flowers have stamens, which remain enclosed within the corolla, and a stout, pale green, exserted, post-like style. Each stamen has a stout white filament capped with a brownish orange, lobed anther that is, in turn, tipped with brownish yellow appendages, of which one is wide and thin and the other round and pointed. These appendages are longer than the pollen-bearing portion of the anther itself. The style terminates with a flat stigmatic surface.
Shiny fruits (berries) develop over summer, changing from a medium green to reddish and then black in September. Dangling berries, persisting well into winter, are ¼ to ⅜ inch in diameter, the size varying by shrub. Berries have a varying number of developed and undeveloped gritty seeds. Fully developed seeds, about a 1/16 inch long, are irregularly rounded. Early in the season, berries are juicy, with a not-unpleasant but often insipid flavor, the least tasty of our state’s blueberries. Later in season, berries become dry.
Sparkleberry, which may be difficult to establish in a garden, can be a highly desirable shrub for a garden or natural area. It has year-round positive attributes with its architectural branches and trunks, fragrant interesting flowers, nicely colored fall leaves, and black berries.
Sparkleberry is a nectar source for butterflies and a host plant for both Henry’s elfin butterfly (Callophrys henrici) and the striped hairstreak (Satyrium liparops). Persistent berries are a dependable food for birds and small mammals well into winter months. Established plants are drought tolerant. In some areas, plants may be browsed by deer.
Other species in the genus that occur in Arkansas are 1) Mayberry (Vaccinium elliottii), 2) High-bush blueberry (Vaccinium fuscatum), 3) Common blueberry (Vaccinium virgatum), 4) Low-bush blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum), and 5) Deerberry (Vaccinium stamineum). Characteristics of Vaccinium arboreum that distinguish it from the other five species include large plant size, rigid branches and twigs, bowl-shaped corolla tube, late time of flowering, partial retention of leaves into winter, and persistence of fruit into winter.
Article and photographs by ANPS member Sid Vogelpohl