“I found my thrill / On blueberry hill…”
music by Vincent Rose / lyrics by Larry Stock & Al Lewis
MY THRILL AND I
In the summer of 2015, Lindsay and I traveled Alaska and came upon a field of wild blueberries that seemed to stretch for miles. That was our first “wild” encounter with blueberries. They weren’t atop a hill, nor did we pick buckets-full. But there, set against the rugged Alaska Range, we walked among the blueberries and ate our fill, my thrill and I.
THE STAR BERRY
“Atop each wild blueberry is the base of its earlier flower, a calyx in the shape of a five-pointed star.”
Once long, long ago, a terrible famine spread among the Native American and First Nations tribes of Eastern North America. The Great Spirit looked down from Heaven upon their suffering and moved by compassion, blessed the land with “star berries” to assuage their hunger. – legend
Whatever its origin, the blueberry plant certainly packs a treasure trove full of goodness. Pre-Columbian tribes ate the berries fresh (who wouldn’t?) and dried or smoked them for their winter stores. They pounded them into dry meat and fat to make pemmican and mixed them with cornmeal and honey to make blueberry pudding called “sautauthig”. In 1643, Roger Williams called the latter, “a delicious dish…which is as sweet to them as plum or spice cake is to the English.” The dried berries were used as a meat rub and as a flavoring for soups and stews. Blueberry juice was used to dye baskets and cloth and to make cough syrup. Even the leaves and stems were used to make medicinal teas.
The Gwich’in Athabascans mixed dindezhri’ (ripened blueberries) with pounded, dried fish to make it’suh, a kind of dessert. Yum, think I’ll make some of that tonight! Actually, I have used blueberries as a sauce on salmon, and it is quite good.
During the mid-1850’s, the famous naturalist Henry David Thoreau ventured into the woods because, “I…wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
During his years in the woods, Thoreau wrote a manuscript entitled Wild Fruits, in which he made numerous references to ways that Native Americans used the blueberry. Of the berry itself he wrote, “[i]f you look closely you will find blueberry and huckleberry bushes under your feet, though they may be feeble and barren, throughout all our woods, the most persevering Native Americans, ready to shoot up into place and power at the next election among the plants…”
Wild Fruit by Henry David Thoreau
Who could have better expressed the resilience of the blueberry?
“Ladies of Grace, and Ladies of Favour,
and Ladies of Merciful Night,
this is a prayer for a Blueberry Girl,
Grant her your clearness of sight.”
Blueberry Girl by Neil Gaiman
Wild blueberries are smaller than their cultivated cousins. Some are sweet and fine eating right out of the bucket; others are sour and suitable for making pies and jams.Their blossoms are bell-shaped, white or pinkish.
As the berries ripen, they turn dusky blue and develop a bloom, or whitish waxy coating on the skin. Some say this bloom protects against bacterial growth and acts as a moisture barrier to keep the fruit juicy, which I suspect is true. Some suggest it protects against insects, while others say it protects the berries from the sun.
The wild blueberry plants I’m familiar with are deciduous, meaning they lose their leaves in winter, but evergreen varieties have been reported. The leaves usually are ovoid or lanceolate and of different sizes depending on the species. They are green in season but turn red in fall as the weather turns cold.
The bushes grow from rhizomes which spread horizontally under the soil into an extensive network of “creeping root stalk” that is capable of propagating new shoots and root systems. They are long-lived perennials which can bear fruit upwards of forty to fifty years. Their woody stems, or canes, turn an attractive red in winter.
Wild blueberry bushes can be classified by their mature height. Low-bush varieties can attain 60 cm, or 20 inches. High-bush varieties grow to 1.8 meters, or 6 feet. Cultivated varieties can reach 4 meters.
I’ve noticed that some sources refer to “low-bush blueberries” as “wild blueberries,” but that is a misnomer. Wild berries can be either low-bush or high-bush.
CLASSIFICATION & RANGE
Blueberries are members of Ericaceae, commonly known as the Heath family, the same to which heather belongs. They are of the genus Vaccinium – cousins to the cranberry, the lingonberry and the bilberry.
Wild blueberries are native to the eastern and northern parts of North America. While there are varieties that thrive in more southerly climes, most are partial to the cold winters and spartan, acidic soils that are common to the boreal forests of the North.
I live on the banks of the Yukon River, just above the Arctic Circle and deep in the interior of Alaska. The Athabascan village of Fort Yukon is my home. It is named Gwichyaa Zhee, or House On the Flats for good reason. One hundred miles to the north lies Arctic Village in the shadow of the Brooks Mountains. There, blueberries grow thick. My neighbors love blueberries, so much that they will fly to Arctic Village to pick them, much as their ancestors once migrated from place to place to follow the food supply.
Maine and Quebec are famously linked to blueberries, but you might stumble across your own blueberry hill just about anywhere from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Wherever you are, be it Michigan, Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, Yukon or Alaska, you are likely near blueberry hunting grounds. Look in sunny, open fields if you are in a snacking mood. Recently burned areas are one of their favorite haunts.
In other parts of the world, most notably South America (but also Africa, Australia and New Zealand) blueberry cultivars have been introduced for their commercial value. But nowhere does the berry grow so abundantly as in North America which supplies 95 percent of the world’s total blueberry crop.
THE CULTIVATED BLUEBERRY
Wild blueberries had developed into a commercial crop well before having been domesticated. But markets were localized until three events changed them forever.
First, railroads began to spread across the United States in the 1820’s, carrying consumer goods with them. Then, less than forty years later, the United States fell upon itself in civil war. Those were terrible years, but in the midst of them, the blueberry found itself becoming all the more popular. Why? – because the Union army purchased massive quantities of the canned berries for its soldiers. After the war, the survivors carried home with them the memory of those little blue gems (one could say that the War Between the States had the ironic effect of spreading blueberry love even as it shed the blood of men). Fifty years after the war, in the early 1900’s, Elizabeth White and Dr. Frederick Coville succeeded in domesticating certain species of wild, high-bush blueberries.
Everything finally had fallen into place for the building of a dynamic new industry from the diminutive blueberry. People were interested in them, the railroads were ready to distribute them, and botanists were selectively breeding new cultivars that could grow in regions previously unsuitable to them. Since those early days, the blueberry has expanded into foreign markets as other countries seek to introduce them to their corners of the globe.
The manipulation of the blueberry plant has not been without cost. Wild blueberries have more flavor and higher concentrations of antioxidants than their counterparts. All are good for you, but without question the cultivars have sacrificed a significant measure of their health benefits to the quest for good looking fruit.
- strengthens your immune system
- improves your memory
- maintains your eyesight
- lowers your cholesterol
- prevents heart disease
- resists urinary tract infections
- slows aging
“Little Bear and his mother went home down one side of Blueberry Hill, eating blueberries all the way…”
Blueberries For Sal by Robert McCloskey
EXPERIENCING THE BLUEBERRY
You can read all you want about blueberries, but you really can’t know them until you have tasted them. It is a matter of experience. There is archeological evidence suggesting that the blueberry has been around for at least 11,000 years.That’s eleven thousand years of goodness and pleasure shared by many diverse cultures.
If you haven’t had your blueberries today, then go get ’em.
“You ought to have seen what I saw on my way
To the village, through Mortenson’s pasture to-day:
Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb,
Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum
In the cavernous pail of the first one to come!
And all ripe together, not some of them green
And some of them ripe! You ought to have seen!”
Blueberries by Robrert Frost
Hoping your life is a blueberry thrill!
- Henry David Thoreau, Wild Fruits, ed. Bradley P. Dean (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2000)