Loss of freeze tolerance, or deacclimation, is an integral part of winter survival in woody perennials because untimely mid-winter or spring thaws followed by a hard freeze can cause severe injury to dehardened tissues. This study was undertaken to investigate deacclimation kinetics, particularly the timing and speed, of five blueberry (Vaccinium L.) cultivars (`Bluecrop', `Weymouth', `Ozarkblue', `Tifblue', and `Legacy'), with different germplasm compositions and mid-winter bud hardiness levels, in response to an environmentally controlled temperature regime. Based upon bud cold hardiness evaluations in 2000 and 2001, `Tifblue', a Vaccinium ashei Reade cultivar, was one of the least hardy and the fastest to deacclimate; `Bluecrop', a predominantly V. corymbosum L. cultivar, was the most hardy and the slowest to deacclimate; and `Ozarkblue', a predominantly V. corymbosum cultivar but including southern species V. darrowi Camp. and V. ashei, was intermediate in speed of deacclimation. `Weymouth' (predominantly V. corymbosum) and `Legacy' (73.4% V. corymbosum and 25% V. darrowi) were slow to intermediate deacclimators. Deacclimation rates did not correlate strictly with mid-winter bud hardiness. Data suggest that the southern germplasm component V. ashei may be responsible for the observed faster deacclimation whereas both southern species, V. darrowi and V. ashei, may contribute genes for cold sensitivity. Strong positive correlations between stage of bud opening and bud cold hardiness existed in both years (r = 0.90 and 0.82 in 2000 and 2001 study, respectively). Previously identified major blueberry dehydrins, 65-, 60-, and 14-kDa, progressively decreased in their abundance during incremental dehardening in `Bluecrop', `Weymouth', and `Tifblue'. However, down-regulation of the 14-kDa dehydrin most closely mirrored the loss in cold hardiness during deacclimation, and, therefore, may be involved in regulation of bud dehardening. Because differences in deacclimation rate were clearly evident among the genotypes studied, rate of deacclimation of the flower buds of blueberry should be an important consideration in breeding to improve winter survival.
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