By Bill Bolger
The Wikipedia entry for Elizabeth C. White goes something like this: “Elizabeth Coleman White (October 5, 1871 – November 11, 1954) was a New Jersey agricultural specialist. She grew up on her father’s cranberry farm in Pemberton Township, Burlington County, New Jersey and developed an interest in commercial agriculture. In 1911, she became interested in blueberry propagation and, using her father’s cranberry farm at Whitesbog in the Pine Barrens, she collaborated with USDA botanist Dr. Frederick Coville to develop a commercial blueberry based on the wild varieties. They developed the first commercial variety in 1916.”
There is no question that a one-paragraph explanation of White’s significance should center on her contribution of the cultivated highbush blueberry. Blueberries are one of this country’s favorite foods, used in jellies and jams, added to pancakes and muffins, and, at least in my case, eaten straight up by the pint when they are in season. And yet, before 1916, the supply was erratic and depended on gathering wild fruit in those locations where the highbush blueberry could be found. One of those places was, and still is, the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey where people had long tried and failed to bring the plant under cultivation. It wasn’t until Coville, applying modern scientific research, managed to define the methods for doing so. But Coville’s important research needed resources for development which he lacked. Elizabeth White, then 40, was an experienced farm manager on her family’s cranberry farm at Whitesbog, which over the preceding half century had become one of the largest and most distinguished operations in the country.
At Elizabeth’s urging and under her direction, the J.J.White Company assumed the challenge of developing the first cultivated varieties of blueberries. This required an exhaustive search for the most promising specimens, followed by extensive testing to select the most appropriate plants, which were then propagated in nurseries until they were ready to be placed in service as dependable commercial varieties. This would be a remarkable accomplishment even for today’s modern agricultural industry. If this is all Elizabeth C. White accomplished in her life, it would be far more than most people could ever hope to lay claim to. But it is only one dimension of her remarkable and inspirational life.
By the time Elizabeth White was born, her family had been in this country for over two centuries, with many generations involved in agriculture. During most of that time, farming practices were based on European traditions. There was little attempt to adapt native plants, and virtually no recognition of the Pine Barrens as a productive environment for agriculture. Generally it was seen, as its name states, as a barren. It was most certainly not seen as a place of natural beauty. And by the time Elizabeth was coming of age, the people of the pines–the so-called “pineys”– were being maligned as backward and ignorant. Elizabeth viewed them very differently; she came to admire the local people, and found great beauty in the Pine Barrens, particularly the native plant species living there. Shortly after her successful work with blueberry cultivation began, she did something that most large landowners had never considered: she moved to the Pine Barrens and devoted her life to it rather than merely extracting wealth from it.
Elizabeth’s appreciation of the Pine Barrens could often take unexpected turns. When she created Suningive, her house and garden, in the middle of the first blueberry test field, she retained one of the rows of the first cultivated berries next to the driveway because she loved the look of the bright red branches in the winter and the way the headlights of her car would play on them when she returned home at night. Elizabeth fell in love with the Pine Barrens and her garden was unlike any other at the time. Rather than fight the unusually acidic soils of the region in an attempt to grow traditional ornamental plants, she chose instead to feature the native plants of the Pines, not only out of botanical interest but because they were worthy of aesthetic appreciation. And what an assembly they made: tall slender white cedars, understory groupings of rhododendrons, azaleas and hollies, irises and lady slippers, ferns and pitcher plants, and of course, cranberries and blueberries. Altogether there were over 200 different species combined in a variety of appropriate niches. She was very conscious of the fact that the garden was located with a view out across the first cranberry bog developed by her grandfather some seventy years earlier and that beyond that bog stood the pine forest that stretched to the Atlantic. It was, as she came to see, a garden within a garden within a garden.
Elizabeth White is important to me least of all because of her work with the blueberry. Her real value in my own life is her role as a pioneer in doing what I believe we must all come to do, which is to appreciate the value of whatever environment we live in as being more than a utilitarian and economic resource, but first and foremost as our emotional, cultural, and spiritual home.
Bill Bolger is an historian and historic preservationist with the National Park Service. His early fieldwork centered mainly on Burlington County. In 1981 he and a team from Historic Conservation and Interpretation, Inc. documented Whitesbog for the National Register of Historic Places.