Laura Dean Bennett
July is national Blueberry Month, a designation I am more than happy to celebrate.
I love blueberries.
Apparently, I am in good company.
They have, since colonial times, been one of Americans’ favorite fruits.
The famous American poet Robert Frost loved blueberries.
He wrote a poem about them, appropriately titled, “Blueberries.”
These days, Americans eat blueberries lots of ways.
America’s favorite type of muffin, for instance, is blueberry.
There’s something irresistible about their sweet, tangy flavor and the slightly crunchy texture provided by their tiny seeds.
They are favored by lots of wildlife, too.
Birds, deer and bears are well-known blueberry aficionados.
When they’re in season, bears will feast on blueberries and nothing else, as long as they last, and have been known to travel up to 15 miles a day looking for a blueberry patch.
I’m able to attest to how much the birds love the blueberries in my back yard.
I have several varieties planted in the blueberry patch – the idea being that each variety ripens at a different time, giving me about two months worth of daily handfuls of the delicious berries.
But if I don’t get out there every day and collect all the ripe ones, the birds will happily take care of them for me.
Blueberries are one of the only natural foods that is truly blue in color, which alone would make them special, but there’s so much more to these little dynamos.
Blueberries are from the Ericaceae family, a very old plant family which is comprised mostly of acid-loving plants found in the temperate zone.
Blueberry’s close cousins include box huckleberry, cranberry, azalea and rhododendron.
Cousins of our native North American blueberries live in Asia, Europe, South America – all the way from the tropics to Alaska.
Probably the first recorded mention of them used as both food and medicine goes back to ancient Rome. Virgil and Pliny wrote about them.
Blueberries were here for thousands of years before the first wave of settlers arrived from Europe.
Early North American explorers made note of seeing wild blueberries on their expeditions.
In 1615, French explorer Samuel de Champlain wrote in his journal about watching Indians along Lake Huron harvesting blueberries.
Lewis and Clark also observed Native Americans drying wild blueberries to preserve them for the winter.
Native Americans held the wild blueberry in very high esteem and called them “star berries” because of the five-pointed star at the blossom end of each berry.
Maybe that’s also where the tribes got the story of how blueberries came to be.
They believed the Great Spirit sent the star berries from the heavens to relieve the hunger of their children during a great famine in ancient times.
They mixed blueberries and other berries with meat to make “pemmican,” an early version of jerky which would provide sustenance on long journeys.
Blueberries were also mixed with cornmeal, honey and water to make a Native American pudding called “sautauthig.”
Native Americans also used blueberries for medicinal purposes.
They brewed a strong, aromatic tea from blueberry roots which was used as a relaxant during childbirth.
Boiled blueberry juice was used to make cough syrup and the leaves were steeped to make a tea thought to strengthen the blood.
The dark blue juice was also used as a dye for cloth and baskets.
Historical accounts indicate that the Wampanoag tribe showed English settlers of the Plymouth Colony where to find blueberries and how to preserve them.
English colonists must have been happy to see blueberries in the New World because they were like English whortleberries.
And Scottish settlers would have seen America’s wild blueberries as being just like the blaeberries in Scotland where the little berries were used to make a delicious jam.
Danish settlers would have seen them as just like the bilberries in Denmark and the Swedes would have recognized them as like their wild berries called blåbär.
People from northern Germany recognized them to be like their own bickberren and those from southern Germany, saw the American blueberries as just like the blauberren from home.
Colonial cooks Americanized traditional English fruit and dough pudding recipes by adding or substituting wild blueberries and renaming them “buckle” or “grunt.”
You may have seen “Blueberry Buckle” or “Blueberry Grunt” in cookbooks or on menus.
Early colonists also boiled blueberries in milk to make gray paint.
The famous, traditional blue paint used in the homes of Shakers was made from blueberry skins, sage blossoms, indigo and milk.
During the Civil War, blueberries were dried, packaged and sent to Union troops as a healthful food staple.
Wild blueberries are smaller than the blueberries we are used to seeing in grocery stores these days, and it takes a lot more of them to make a pie, but they are very flavorful.
Since the early 20th century, blueberries have been cultivated to bear larger fruit, a bluer color and higher yield.
Large scale commercial development of the wild blueberry began in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Since then, the industry has steadily gathered steam.
The majority of commercially harvested wild blueberries come from north- eastern Maine and eastern Canada.
Maine is the blueberry production capital of North America, and the blueberry is its official state berry.
Maine produces more than 90 percent of all blueberries harvested in America.
The blueberry industry of North America ships more than 500 metric tons of fresh berries a year to Japan and more than 100 metric tons to Iceland, just to name two of the many countries who have developed a taste for American blueberries.
The surge in the popularity of blueberries has encouraged home gardeners to plant the several varieties of the “high bush” type of these shrubs.
Scientific studies keep showing more and more health benefits of blueberries.
At 84 calories a cup, one serving of blueberries contains 14 percent of suggested daily fiber and 24 percent of recommended daily intake of Vitamin C.
Recent reports indicate that blueberries are higher in antioxidants than any other fruit or vegetable.
These antioxidants block the presence of chemically charged particles called, “free radicals,” that are believed to cause many diseases including cancer, stroke, heart disease and loss of memory resulting from Alzheimer’s disease.
According to the New England Journal of Medicine, blueberries fight urinary tract infections and help to prevent macular degeneration of the eye.
The North American Blueberry Council says that blueberry juice contains higher concentrations of antioxidants than any of 40 juices tested.
Doctors conducting a study of older adults at the University of Cincinnati found that wild blueberry juice enhanced memory and learning function, and, at the same time, reduced blood sugar levels and decreased symptoms of depression.
Besides high levels of Vitamin C, blueberries contain high levels of Vitamin A, Vitamins B1 and B6, Vitamin K, folate, niacin, calcium, phosphorus, potassium and iron.
Studies suggest that blueberries can lower levels of LDL (the bad cholesterol), which could help to reduce the risk of coronary disease.
Finally, research indicates that consuming one cup of blueberries per week can lower blood pressure and perhaps speed up metabolism.
Is there such a thing as eating too many blueberries?
I certainly hope not!
When they are in season, I eat as many as I can.
Toss them in with pancake mix, use them as a topping for vanilla ice cream or try them in a healthy smoothie.
They can be added to fruit salads or garden salads, or used as edible garnishes partnered with summer refreshments.
They can be juiced or made into jam or preserves.
Stock up on them now and preserve them for later by drying, freezing or canning.
While they’re in season, I recommend enjoying them often – not just for their marvelous taste, but also for their amazing health benefits.