With all the uncertainty in our lives today, it’s a good thing wild blueberries grow as dependably as they do.
Native to Maine, wild blueberries first appeared as glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago. Native Americans encouraged their growth by burning fields, allowing new sprouts to emerge from existing root systems while also controlling against disease and pests. European colonists were quick to adopt blueberries into their diet, and it was not long before they became a staple in the United States (canned blueberries were shipped to Union troops during the Civil War). Today, 44,000 acres are given over to wild blueberry crops in Maine, accounting for 10% of all blueberry production in the country.
Distinct from cultivated blueberries, the wild variety that grows on low-lying bushes is smaller, richer in antioxidants, and has a more intense sweet and tangy taste. Wild blueberries come in a number of varieties, but they all share succulent flavor and high antioxidant levels. It’s little wonder wild blueberries are so popular during harvest season in high summer.
We humans have serious competition for the berries, as deer, birds, squirrels, mice, skunks, rabbits, and foxes also love them, and black bears can consume up to 30,000 blueberries in one day. That’s an awful lot of demand, so it’s a good thing they grow as readily as they do.
Though wild blueberry plants initially grow from seeds, once a plant has taken hold, it sends out underground stems (rhizomes), which push up new stems through the soil as they spread. One wild blueberry plant that began as a seed typically accounts for 75 to 250 square feet of wild blueberry growth, though rhizomes have been known to take hold up to half a mile from an originating plant (called a clone). A single acre covered in wild blueberry bushes contains an average of 109 clones, each a genetic variation from the other.
One acre of wild blueberries yields around 5,000 pounds of berries annually, providing adequate supply to meet the extraordinary demand for the fruit.
This is a good and welcome thing at a time when so many traditional touchstones of summer—Major League Baseball and Wimbledon; summer concerts and political conventions; easygoing dining out with friends and summer camp cookouts—can no longer be taken for granted. This summer, Maine wild blueberries reliably filling our fields and markets is a steadying dose of normalcy for our unsettled psyches.
Thank goodness for the wild blueberry, and bring on the season!