Wild Blueberries

by Barbara Ross

A Tine to Live, A Tine to DieLast  week, in honor of the launch of our blog-mate Edith Maxwell’s Local Food Mystery, A Tine to Live, A Tine to Die, all the wicked cozy authors wrote about farming, gardening and local foods. I wasn’t up on the blog last week, so here’s my contribution.

I’ve been doing a lot of research into wild blueberry cultivation. Boiled Over, the second book in my Maine Clambake Mystery series, takes place in early to mid-August, peak of the Maine tourist season and the time of the blueberry harvest. Blueberries play a big role in the story.

Wild, or low bush, blueberries are the tiny ones, cousins of the more familiar, larger, cultivated high bush berries. Though their growing zone is wide, low bush blueberries are commercially harvested at scale only in Maine and eastern Canada. Maine produces 38% of all wild blueberries and 15% of all blueberries, wild and domestic, in North America.

WILD MAINE Blueberries The blueberries are called wild because they’re not raised from seeds or grafts. They grow in their natural habitat–sandy, acidic soil left by receding glaciers, not good for much else. Though Maine blueberries are not cultivated, fields are mowed or burned and then left unpicked every other year to prevent the bushes from getting so dense the berries don’t get sun and to get rid of pests. Since two-thirds of the bush is underground, mowing or burning doesn’t hurt them. Weeds are controlled by herbicides and fields are fertilized. Also, bees are brought in to pollinate fields in the spring. So Maine blueberries are like Maine lobster, a natural resource that is managed, but not farmed.

This approach results in a rich biodiversity. Any given field contains thousands or even millions of diverse strains which taste slightly different and ripen at different times, meaning the box you buy will have a depth and richness of mingled tastes. Cultivated berries are typically only a couple of strains per field and all ripen at once.

Spruce Mountain 1 GD.jpgIncreasingly, low bush berries are picked mechanically, but many fields are still picked by hand. Pickers use a rake that looks like a dustpan with a comb on it. Among those who come to pick are members of the Mi’kmaq tribe who travel to Maine every year from eastern Canada. They harvest fields owned by Maine’s Passamaquoddy tribe, who have agreed that they will leave fields for hand-picking as long as the Mi’kmaqs continue to come. For the Mi’kmaqs, berry picking in Maine is such a long tradition, no one knows when it began. Though the work is back-breaking, it’s also a social time to see old friends, play cards and music in the camps and spend time together. It’s like your family camping trip–if your parents picked 75 to 100 quarts of blueberries everyday before they got down to having fun.

David Stress Brooks photographed the Maine blueberry harvest for more than two decades, raking alongside the people whose images he captured. The photos have a haunting beauty and are well worth giving a look, here.

blueberriesOnly 1% of Maine low bush berries are sold fresh and virtually all of those in New England–the rest are frozen. Aren’t we New Englanders lucky to have access to this delicious fruit?

7 Thoughts

  1. I loved picking blueberries (for eating and pies and jelly — not commercially) as a child. Even then — my knees and back were often sore from bending or squatting. But it was always part of the Maine experience. Now I don’t know any place to pick that isn’t privately owned (by someone I don’t know) where you can go to just wander and pick .. or pick by the side of the road, which I also remember doing. (Using tin blueberry pails, of course.) But I do buy them, year round – frozen – and eat them in yogurt, in oatmeal, in pies … isn’t it wonderful that something so delicious has also been deemed so good for you?

  2. I love blueberries! This is great, Barb. Also love blackberries – we used to have tons of wild blackberry bushes on my street as a kid before they tore them all down to build houses. Made me sad….

  3. Barb, this is the best article on wild Maine blueberries I’ve ever seen! Thank you so much for posting! It explains a lot about my great aunt’s farm.

    Half my clients used to go back home for blueberry picking season up in Nova Scotia. The other half’d go for lobstering. I loved my work. We rarely got on each others nerves. When they came back down we were always happy to see each other.

    1. And yes… absolutely right about the flavor cannot possibly be the same amazing flavor except you get them fresh in New England. When I went back home for school and had my first fresh blueberries in years my poor family didn’t know why I was so excited. I should say my lucky family!

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