Since I was a kid, I have picked blueberries just about every summer on my grandmother's farm in Burlington County, New Jersey. Her blueberry bushes stand on the edge of the field, right next to a rangy area of wild blackberries; just beyond is the marshy forest that bisects the two main fields of the farm (the "back" field, as we call it, is mostly fallow now, with just a few long rows of corn in the summer and an old peach orchard). Black raspberries grow alongside the blueberry bushes, and one corner of the blueberry patch is always, always wet underfoot.
I usually pick as many berries as I can, along the way eating almost as many as I pick. All these years picking blueberries in Burlington County - and little did I know that the birthplace of cultivated blueberries is literally down the road from my grandma's farm, in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey! I plan on visiting next time I'm in South Jersey, to pay homage to the farmers who helped create one of my favorite fruits.
A Brief History
Blueberries are native to North America, although they have botanical relatives around the world. They have been harvested for thousands of years by Native North American tribes, who used the plant as both food and medicine; for many tribes, blueberries (and their cousin huckleberries) were important both culturally and economically. Wild blueberries were first harvested commercially in the 1840s.
Up until the early 1900s, blueberries continued to be primarily foraged, or wild shrubs were transplanted in unsuccessful attempts at cultivation. In New Jersey in 1911, botanist Frederick Colville, in collaboration with Elizabeth Coleman White, the daughter of a New Jersey cranberry farmer, first started experimenting with wild varieties of blueberries in order to create strains more suitable for cultivation; in 1916, Colville published Directions for Blueberry Culture in which he described blueberries' unique soil needs and other cultivation and harvesting information. After that, commercial blueberry growing exploded, eventually expanding to multiple US states and around the world.
- Native Americans used blueberries (and their relatives, cranberries) to make pemmican, a mixture of dried, pounded meat, fat and fruit. The fruit was also used to make a number of other Native American dishes, like Sautauthig, a porridge of blueberries and dried corn.
- According to the National Institutes of Health, inhaling the smoke from dried blueberry flowers has been used as a treatment for insanity.
- East Coasters can trek to the "birthplace of the highbush blueberry" in New Jersey's Whitesbog Village, original home of blueberry pioneer Elizabeth White.
- The blueberry rake - a device for harvesting wild blueberries - was invented in Maine in 1822. (Here is a weirdly trippy video demonstrating the rake in action.)
Cultivation and Foraging
In the heather family (Ericaceae), which also includes rhododendrons, azaleas and heaths, blueberries are in the Vaccinium genus (in the Cyanococcus botanical section). They are closely related to both cranberries (V.oxycoccus) and European bilberries (V. myrtillus). The most economically important cultivars are divided into highbush, lowbush ("wild") and rabbit-eye varietals. Most blueberries require acidic soil and high moisture in order to thrive.
Wild blueberries form "blueberry barrens" in some areas of the US and Canada, wide areas in which the predominant species are lowbush blueberries. For the most part, lowbush ("wild") blueberries are not cultivated; rather, wild stands are actively "managed" (in some cases, to include pesticide application) by farmers. In Maine and parts of Canada, the commercially sold wild varieties of the berry have a long history of seasonal harvest by Micmac Indians, some families of which have been harvesting wild blueberries for generations. (Here are a number of truly beautiful photographs of blueberry barrens and the people who pick the fruit.)
As might be expected, the US and Canada lead the way in blueberry production. In the US, the highbush variety of the fruit is an important commercial crop in Michigan, New Jersey, Georgia, Oregon and Washington. Maine leads in the production of lowbush ("wild") blueberries.
Blueberries are the quintessential summer fruit - usually coming into the markets starting in June (although Florida residents may see harvests as early as March and April) and peaking through August and early September.
Unfortunately, domestic blueberries rank a fairly high 13 on the Environmental Working Group's Guide to Pesticides in Produce; imported blueberries fall a bit lower on the list at 22. (Here's a list of pesticides commonly found on blueberries.) There are some differences in "wild" type production and cultivated blueberries, although wild blueberries are not necessarily pesticide-free. One of the largest wild blueberry producers, Wyman's, was threatened with a lawsuit for aerial pesticide spraying as a violation of federal Clean Water Act (they voluntarily ceased spraying, but still continue to use minimal ground spraying as part of integrated pest management practices). (*Check out our fruit and vegetable rule of thumb for more info.)
Blueberries walk the line between tart and sweet, although cultivated varieties are now bred for increasing sweetness and large, plump fruits. Depending on the varietal, the berries may be very small (see: lowbush/wild varieties) or quite large and plump, and the color may vary from sky blue to deep, dusky purple. Wild varieties tend to have a more concentrated blueberry flavor, while cultivated varieties tend to be juicier.
What to look for
Look for firm, dry, plump blueberries with smooth skin and no shriveled or moldy bits. Pass on greenish or red blueberries - this generally means that they are under ripe. Some blueberries may have a faint white powdery coating (called "bloom") that is naturally occurring and helps to protect the berries.
Nutrition and effects on the body
Blueberries are one of the world's healthiest fruits. Not only are they a good source of Vitamin K, Vitamin C and manganese; they are also high in fiber and relatively low in calories. The little blue fruits are naturally rich in polyphenols, antioxidant chemicals that are increasingly linked to big-time health benefits, including in cardiovascular health, brain functioning (including memory) and even cancer prevention. All parts of the shrub are used in natural medicine, including the leaves and roots. Native American tribes made a tea from blueberry roots that was said to ease the pain of childbirth. Blueberry leaf tea is also very high in antioxidants.
What to Do with It
Naturally, blueberries are delicious eaten out of hand, but they also add sweet-tart depth to lots of dishes, both sweet and savory. Try blueberries with rich meats, cheeses, in salads and with whole grains. And of course, blueberries are just perfect in desserts.
On the savory side, blueberries pair deliciously with pork and duck - try a dab of blueberry jam with your next duck dish, or check out these blueberry-glazed pork ribs. Or top grilled chicken with this blueberry-basil salsa. I also love to toss a handful of berries into a green salad; or try gently mixing in some of the fruit with whole grain dishes, like quinoa or wheat berries. Blueberries are also quite delicious with cheese - team up blueberry preserves or fresh berries with goat cheese or harder, strong cheeses like Manchego for a sweet-salty-tangy flavor combo.
But where blueberries really shine is in desserts, their natural acidity providing a welcome counterbalance to baked goods, puddings and other sweet treats. Of course, there are the ubiquitous (but no less awesome) blueberry muffins, pies, cobblers, pancakes and crisps, but don't forget about blueberry sauce (perfect for topping sundaes), blueberry ice cream (or sorbet), blueberry buckle and blueberry pudding. I probably don't need to tell you that blueberries are awesome in smoothies and in parfaits, either. Also try subbing dried blueberries for raisins in cookie and other dessert recipes.
If you plan to use your blueberries within a day, store them right on the counter. Otherwise, stick them, unwashed, in the fridge in the container they came in. They will keep for up to a week. I usually take a quick look-through for any damaged berries and remove them before storing - damaged blueberries invite moisture and mold that can quickly ruin an entire container of the fruit.
Have you ever baked up a batch of blueberry muffins, only to discover that your blueberries have turned green? This is because the pigments in blueberries (primarily anthocyanins) turn green when cooked with alkaline ingredients like baking soda. To correct this problem, add a bit of acid to the mixture, in the form of buttermilk or yogurt, and/or use less baking soda.
Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation
If you are a blueberry lover, you're in luck: the fruit is super easy to preserve in a myriad of ways. In my opinion, blueberry jam is one of life's great pleasures. Here is a recipe for quick blueberry refrigerator jam and a wild Maine blueberry jam that looks delightful. Blueberry syrup is another way to preserve your harvest (or farmers' market bonanza), or you can pickle your berries for a sweet-tart sandwich topper. Blueberries also dry beautifully. But the easiest way to enjoy blueberries year-round is to freeze them. To do it: pick over the berries for any stems or mushy fruit, wash and thoroughly dry, then place the blueberries on a cookie sheet in a single layer and stick in the freezer. When the fruit is completely frozen, transfer to freezer-proof zip-top bags.
Sweet Buttermilk Blueberry Cornbread with Cardamom and Lemon
This recipe is a nod to the Native American dish sautauhig, a porridge of cornmeal and blueberries. It's a sweet corn-y cake with the citrus-y flavors of cardamom and lemon, punctuated by little burst of blueberries. (It is certainly not "cornbread" as Southerners might think of it!) Feel free to use fresh or frozen blueberries (if using frozen, do not thaw).
1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cup yellow or white fine-ground cornmeal
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoons ground cardamom
Zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/3 cup organic canola oil
1 ½ cups blueberries
- Preheat the oven to 425ºF. Grease a 9x9x2-inch baking pan with butter or cooking spray and set aside.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, cardamom, lemon zest and salt. In a smaller bowl, whisk together the eggs, buttermilk, lemon juice and organic canola oil.
- Add the liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients, stirring with a wooden spoon until just mixed (don't over mix or the cornbread will be tough).
- Very gently fold in the blueberries with a rubber spatula.
- Bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes, or until lightly browned on the top and a toothpick inserted in the center of the cornbread comes out clean.
(*Fruit and vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them - agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.)