All about berries! Blueberries, both wild and cultivated, are native to the Northeast. They belong to the Ericaceae plant family, along with cranberries. They are in season in the Adirondack region from mid-July through September. The United States is the primary producer of blueberries worldwide, followed by Canada, and Peru. In the US they are mostly grown in Oregon, Washington State, Michigan, New Jersey, California, and North Carolina. Many diversified farms and orchards grow blueberries in the Adirondack region. Blueberries like acidic soil and cold winters for a dormancy period.
Above photo: Blueberry harvest at Wild Work Farm in Keene Valley, NY. Netting over berry bushes protects the crop from birds. Most small-scale diversified farms and orchards pick their harvests by hand.
History and Facts
Blueberries have been an important food and medicine of indigenous populations in the Adirondack region for thousands of years. The first large-scale growing of blueberries was by the Wabanaki people in what is now Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, who strategically used controlled burning to increase yields and expand blueberry fields.
During this time, indigenous people used the blueberries fresh or dried them for later use in a variety of foods. For example, dried blueberries have been used in a preparation developed by Indigenous people in the Northeast called Pemmican, which is a combination of dried meat, dried blueberries, and fat. Another dish called Sautauthig, a pudding made with fresh or dried blueberries, was customary to be made with dried cracked corn, and water. The juice of blueberries has also been used to create a cough syrup, and the leaves, stems, and roots of the plants were used for a variety of medicinal purposes. Blueberries are sometimes referred to by indigenous communities as “star berries” because the blossom end of each blueberry forms a perfect star shape. Many times they were harvested by women and children who would lay a blanket around the bush, and shake the berries onto the blanket to be collected.
During the 1600s when European immigrants came to the Maine coast, wild blueberry patches were used as a communal ground where settlers could harvest them. They were used in a range of ways, from canned berries for union troops during the Civil War, to making dye for clothing.
Cultivated blueberries or Highbush berries were first developed in 1912 by Elizabeth White of Whitesbog Cranberry Farm in New Jersey with help from renowned botanist Frank Coville. After successful cultivation and distribution, the practice of growing and harvesting blueberries really spread from the 1940s to the 1960s, and the market has continued to grow today.
How Blueberries Are Cultivated
Today, cultivated varieties of blueberries are primarily what is grown and produced. It’s estimated that about 70 percent of blueberries grown in North America are cultivated varieties, and the remainder are wild. Blueberries are a hardy perennial, and many farms source young new plants rather than growing plants from seed. They begin to produce berries about three to four years after they are established and reach their full potential about eight to twelve years after they are established.
To maintain high yields, growers prune them in the winter. Many growers will use insecticides and netting to reduce damage from pests and wildlife. Some berry growers pick them by hand, and others use tractors and machines that rustle plants and drop berries into a collection bin. Then, they are refrigerated, frozen, or processed for sale. On small farms and orchards in the Adirondacks, they are generally picked by hand. Some farms and orchards have you-pick blueberries, where you can experience a blueberry harvest yourself and can enjoy truly fresh-picked blueberries.
Video: How blueberries are grown and harvested on a commercial operation
Lowbush blueberries, or wild blueberries, grow on shorter, more spread-out shrubs. They can be found across the Adirondacks, where they offer an important food source for wildlife and offer a really tasty treat for outdoor enthusiasts that come across them. Wild blueberries prefer to live on the edges of forests and can be found alongside many hiking trails and waterways. If you choose to pick wild blueberries, make sure you know how to properly identify them, and to follow ethical and sustainable harvesting methods. Some experts say only take ⅓ of what is available, but you may find taking much less is more appropriate in some situations.
Wild (left) and Cultivated Blueberries (right), Photo from wildblueberries.com
You can learn more about the Wild Blueberry industry in Maine from Huffington Post’s article highlighting migrant workers’ role in fruit harvesting.
A Few Ways to Enjoy Blueberries
- Best enjoyed, by the handful, fresh!
- Adirondack Blueberry Muffins, recipe from the Kitchen Twins
- Red, White, and Blue Sangria, recipe from Adirondack Winery
- Blueberry Goat Cheese and Carmelized Onion Pizza, recipe from Edible Vermont
Try Something New! Other Berries to Try at the Farmers’ Market
Currants, Red and Black- Currants are highly popular in Europe, where the plant is native. This shrub produces clusters of delicate berries that look like little red or deep purple water balloons. Currants are tart and have a small seed in them. They are best enjoyed in contrast with something sweet or savory, like in a jam or a sauce for meats.
Juneberries, Serviceberries or Saskatoon berries– Are a berry bush native to the Northeast US that produces larger and sweeter blueberry like berries earlier in the season. They fell out of favor but are making a comeback. Several different cultivars are being tested at the Cornell Research Farm in Willsboro, NY. Eat them as you would blueberries, great fresh or cooked.
Gooseberries– The berries of a thorny bush. Can be eaten raw, or cooked. They have a fruity grape-like flavor that gets sweeter as they ripen. Eat or cook them shortly after buying, or freeze them for later use.
Where to Buy Berries
Wherever local fruit is sold near you! Find farmers’ markets, local food retail locations, and farmstands selling berries at AdirondackHarvest.com.
How do you like to enjoy local berries? Comment below and let us know.