Summer means blueberries. Yes, we’re fortunate that we can get them all year round, but there’s an undeniable thrill when they appear at the local farmers’ markets or grocery stores in mid- to late-summer. Maybe you have a place to pick them yourself–lucky you!
Blueberries are a seasonal–and perhaps sentimental–trigger to those of us who have lived a handful of decades. For me, they mean that summer has peaked. Carpe diem.
I’ve picked them with friends and family; they’re easy to gather. No stooping over, as with strawberries, and no thorns, as with blackberries. Except for the indelible stains they leave on hands, mouths, and clothing, my blueberry memories are all good. Delicious, even.
But blueberry farms and reliable annual crops are really new-fangled notions. It’s only been a little over a hundred years that humans figured out how to cultivate them.
History of blueberries in three paragraphs
The history of blueberries is pretty short. Native Americans had long recognized the taste and benefits of wild blueberries, and collected them for flavoring, cooking, and medicine. When the Pilgrims arrived, they’d have been introduced to blueberries, maybe even at the First Thanksgiving.
Wild blueberries were always delectable, but had to be hunted down. They refused to be cultivated until the late 19th century, when a determined young woman named Elizabeth White, defied the opinion of local farmers, and partnered with USDA botanist Frederick Coville to solve the problem.
It took Coville a few years, but in 1910, he figured out that blueberries need acidic soil. After a couple of trial runs, in 1912, the fruit’s future seemed bright. In 1916, the first commercial crop was sold in Whitesbog, NJ. In 1917, “blueberry fever” hit, and has never slowed down. Bingo!
Highbush or Lowbush?
Native–or wild–blueberries are called “lowbush.” They’re smaller, sweeter, and more color-intense than cultivated blueberries. Over 90% of worldwide lowbush production is in Maine and Eastern Canada. When I was in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in late June, dozens of cars were parked along the roadsides and Yoopers were busy picking berries from the short bushes.
Highbush blueberries are the cultivated variety. The berries are large, abundant, and are less sensitive to warmer temperatures than their lowbush ancestors. More than 75% of the world’s blueberry production is the highbush species, with the United States, Chile, and Canada accounting for 76% of the harvests.
Today, blueberries have their own passport credentials and have traveled the world. While most (45%) are still comfy in North America, others can be found in:
- South America (29%)
- Europe (17%)
- Asia & Pacific (9%)
Let’s pause a moment to appreciate the blueberry
Those of us who grew up with blueberries may not fully appreciate the superpowers of that slice of pie we love:
- Cancer and inflammation protection: with high levels compounds called phytochemicals, the risk of some cancers that are linked to chronic inflammation decreases.
- Heart healthy! One cup (two handfuls) a day can cut your risk of heart disease by 12-15%. Blueberries can reduce high blood pressure, too.
- Maintain brain functioning: That same cup of berries for your heart also keeps your brain humming along. One study with people aged 68 and older who had mild cognitive disorders showed improvement after 16 weeks on dried blueberry powder.
- Good for your gut: Our overall health and immune system depends on the 100 trillion bacterial cells in our gastrointestinal tract being happy. Blueberries contribute a prebiotic type of dietary fiber that keeps those bacteria fed and content.
Recipe: Fresh Blueberry Pie
Because they’re sturdy, blueberries can be jostled, go straight into the freezer, and emerge unharmed. Don’t rinse them until you’re ready to use.
FRESH BLUEBERRY PIE
1 baked pie shell
4 cups blueberries, fresh or frozen
1 cup water
1/2-1 cup sugar, as you wish
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon butter
Heat to boiling 1 cup fruit and 1 cup water. Boil 1 minute. While still boiling, add the sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Stir until thick. Remove from stove and add the rest of the blueberries and butter. Pour into the baked pie shell. Chill and serve. Top with whipped cream if you’re in the mood.
Your take-away lesson for today
We love to travel and try new foods. Exotic fruits can seem more delicious and enticing than those we grew up with. Our own recipes can appear dull and ordinary. But sometimes we need to step back and reconsider what we have at home. The rest of the world now loves blueberries, too. Our very own North American fruit has gone global. Take a moment and be grateful for this humble berry. Praise the berry and pass the pie!
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