An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but a daily bowl of blueberries may actually make you a smarter gardener, reduce your risk of diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's and even help fight obesity.
The health benefits of blueberries have been well known for nearly a decade. But new research, discussed in the March edition of Scientific American, adds even more reasons that at least two or three blueberry plants should be in every gardener’s plot.
Does growing blueberries actually trigger the growth of new brain cells? Well, probably not. But eating those blueberries does! This, according to some pretty hefty research conducted by Dr. James Joseph and others at a USDA Nutrition Research Center at Tufts University.
That’s right, an 8-ounce bowl of blueberries, fresh or frozen, blended or raw, can actually promote the growth of new brain cells.
The study is the first to show a reversal in several dysfunctions of behavior. Studies from a decade ago clearly linked the consumption of high-antioxidant blueberry fruits with a reduction in the loss of cognitive brain functions as well as loss of motor skills. But the new studies go much further, showing that blueberries actually reverse the loss of brain cells, and improve cognitive and motor skills.
Cognitive skills include the efficiency in which a brain processes auditory and visual data. Faster processing leads to more efficient thinking and learning. Memory, logic and reasoning are also cognitive skills and lead to new concepts, increased understanding, improved problem solving and planning. Finally, these skills include better attention; such as the capacity to stay focused and on task, to focus on several points simultaneously and to quickly sort and discard distractions or irrelevant information, remaining focused on the important information.
In the Tufts trials, aging rats were fed a diet equal to a cup of blueberries per day. Dr. Joseph and his colleagues reported significantly improved navigation skills as well as improvements in balance, coordination and running speed. Dr. Joseph states, "I'm struck by the changes we saw in motor behavior in the rats fed the blueberry diet. This is the first study that demonstrates a significant reversal in coordination and balance -- some of the first things to go as you age." According to Dr. Joseph, the blueberry has emerged as a very powerful food in the aging battle. "I make a point of tossing a handful of blueberries into a protein drink in the morning to start the day off right," says Joseph. "Given the possibility that blueberries may reverse short-term memory loss and forestall other effects of aging, their potential may be very great," added Joseph.
Because of new blueberry varieties bred specifically for local gardens, during the past few years blueberries have become a popular plant in Orange County gardens. In 2004, Roger’s Gardens introduced to local gardeners the now popular ‘Sunshine Blue’ blueberry. Self-fruitful, compact, attractive and heavy fruiting, ‘Sunshine Blue’ is now wildly popular with well over 6,000 sold at Roger’s Gardens in the past four years.
Blueberries are easy to grow in containers. Just find a sunny spot and fill a pot with the same soil used for azaleas. Fertilizing should be done with an azalea or “acid” food. My nearly mature ‘Sunshine Blue’ blueberry plant produces about 1500 blueberries each season – yes I counted them. Fruiting begins in early April and continues sometimes into early August. Three or four blueberry plants should provide enough for both fresh eating as well as an ample supply for the freezer.
But eating blueberries appears to be just as beneficial for your body as it is for your brain. Last year, scientists at Rutgers University and the USDA announced that blueberries may help prevent colon cancer. Pre-cancerous lesions in laboratory animals are reduced by nearly 60 percent. Scientists at the USDA also demonstrated that blueberries can lower cholesterol levels as effectively as some prescription drugs, but with far fewer side effects.
The good news about blueberries just keeps on coming. Research conducted at Rutgers University demonstrated that blueberries can help prevent bladder and kidney infections and a number of recent studies suggest that consuming blueberries may help lower blood pressure. University of Maine researchers found that blueberry fed lab animals remained more relaxed than those of their untreated counterparts.
In spite of their sweet and delicious taste, a one-cup serving of blueberries offers just 160 calories. Compounds in blueberry fruit may even reduce the risk of weight gain and the development of obesity. According to one study, mice fed high-fat diets along with blueberries gained significantly less weight and body fat than mice consuming high-fat diets alone.
If you're in search of a snack that can improve your health, boost your brainpower and make your taste buds happy, a bowlful of blueberries might be your best bet. Even better, you can grow your own blueberries, right in your own garden. . . and now’s the time to get started.
Questions from Readers March 7
I am from Louisiana and grew up on fresh okra from the garden. Can okra be grown locally?
Nancy, Newport Beach
Yes, quite easily. However, okra, a not too distant annual relative of hibiscus, likes warm soil, balmy weather and long days. You’ll need to start okra from seed, which isn’t very hard, but wait until about May to start germinating it. Grow it in a warm, sunny vegetable garden or in containers. Each attractive plant grows about three to four feet high and yields dozens of fruit over a long period.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar.