(Sparkleberry - Farkleberry - Tree Huckleberry)
Vaccinium arboreum Marshall
Ericaceae (Heath) Family
Sparkleberry is an upright shrub or small tree that usually measures 6'-12' tall but can reach up to 30' tall. It commonly grows in clumps, although individual plants have dense, rounded crowns. Its preferred habitat is dry forests, thickets, fields, new forest plantations, and sandy and rocky sites. Distribution in the Escambia region is occasional.
The leaves are simple, alternate, and evergreen or they may fall off in late winter or early spring. They are 1" to 2" long, ½" to 1" wide, and oval to obovate in outline. The upper leaf surface is shiny, dark green, the lower leaf surface is paler green, and the leaf margin is entire or very finely toothed.
The white flowers are bell shaped with five lobes, about 1/3 in (0.5 cm) long, and arranged in profuse drooping clusters.
The fruit is a dry, round berry, ¼" wide, and ripens from green to purple or black. The berries are shiny black, about 1/4 in (0.6 cm) in diameter. On the tip of each berry is a five-pointed star, the remains of the calyx. The berries often remain on the trees throughout winter.
New stems are brownish-gray to reddish-brown and somewhat zig-zagged, but they gradually acquire light lenticel dots and turn shiny brown with age. The bark is dark grayish brown and flakes off to reveal patches of reddish-brown inner bark.
This small tree has huge advantages for both wildlife and homeowners. Variously known as farkleberry or tree huckleberry, it is the only North American variety of the blueberry genus that can reach treelike dimensions. Its specific epithet, arboreum, is derived from the Latin word for tree. Common in dry woodlands throughout much of Florida and south Alabama, sparkleberry trees tolerate both wetness and moderate drought conditions. It grows in a variety of soil and light conditions ranging from full sun to full shade, preferring well-drained, acidic to neutral soil. Another attractive feature is that sparkleberry is usually free of pests and disease problems, reducing the hassle, expense, and danger of chemical applications.
Its artfully twisted trunk, covered with grayish brown outer bark, displays a pleasing mottled effect as thin strips peel off to reveal the smooth reddish brown inner bark. Although the trunk is somewhat contorted, sparkleberry trees can reach almost 30 feet height. The airy branches arch crookedly, creating a rounded crown where birds nest during the breeding season in its dense twisting branch system. Some species known to nest here are northern cardinal, brown thrasher, northern mockingbird, and blue jay. The sparkleberry provides wildlife with reliable cover in all seasons, as it bears its small, roundish leaves nearly year round. In fall, it is among our most attractive trees, as the leaves shift to pink to bright crimson to purple.
Springtime (April - May) finds them literally covered with small, white, urn-shaped flowers, borne in profuse sprays, reminiscent of lilies-of-the-valley. Pollinators of several kinds, including butterflies, are attracted to the flowers, which in turn invite insect eating birds to the area. Once pollinated, the flowers produce 5-8 mm berries, which turn from green to a shiny black, similar to other blueberries. Although sparkleberries may be made into jam or jelly, they are not as flavorful to humans as they are to the many animals who seek them for nourishment. Sparkleberries are a favorite food of the eastern bluebird, which relies on berries for winter food, as well as other songbirds such as catbirds, blue jay, tufted titmouse, and the great crested flycatcher. Bobwhite, turkey, and mammal species such as fox, raccoon, opossum, deer, hog, and bear also incorporate sparkleberries in their diet.
Although the sparkleberry is among our most resilient trees, it too can succumb to degradation of our native plant communities through development, and changes in land use. Although its requirements are modest, its importance to wildlife is large, and care should be taken that it remains a viable resident of natural systems. Recognition of its value as a landscape plant should help citizens bring life to their landscape, and provide hours of enjoyment as they watch wildlife harvest this small trees bounties in all seasons.