Reviving Their Home-Grown and Local Farm Status
The blueberry has a long and popular history with humans. Considered a very old species, it was once known as “star berry” by the Native Americans because of the perfect five-pointed star shape that forms on the blossom end of each berry. Native legend tells that the Great Spirit sent the berries to the earth to nourish the children during a famine.
Wild blueberries are native to North America, with varieties adapted to locations around the world from the tropics to Alaska. New immigrants from Scotland remembered a similar berry they called the blaeberry. Immigrants from England saw similarities to their whortleberries back home. The Danish found the New World berry to be remarkably like their wild bilberries, and settlers from northern Germany saw them as kin to their own bickberren. Closely related New World blueberry cousins also include the cranberry, and the wild huckleberry, the latter of which most agree (although the debate continues) has larger seeds than the wild blueberry, and is often mistaken for wild blueberries. Blueberries, huckleberries and cranberries are in the “Heath” family in the genus Vaccinium.
Long established within the New World’s native cuisine, the French explorer Samuel de Champlain noted natives harvesting the berries along what is now Lake Huron, where they were then dried, beaten to a powder, and mixed with water, cornmeal and honey to create “Sautauthig,” a sort of pudding. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, appointed by Thomas Jefferson to explore the Columbia and Missouri Rivers and inform Native tribes that traders would soon be coming to buy their furs, witnessed how Native Americans along the way smoked wild blueberries as a form of preservation for winter, and also pounded wild blueberries into meat, which they then smoked and dried. Both the natives and settlers used other parts of the wild blueberry plant as well for teas and medicinal purposes.
In the early 1900s, Elizabeth White and Dr. Frederick Coville conducted breeding work to crossbreed varieties of the wild highbush blueberry for an easy-to-harvest tall growing berry plant good for home gardens and farms. With continued breeding and natural selection, their work resulted in today’s cultivated blueberry varieties. However, wild lowbush, hand-harvested blueberries are also a niche industry of their own, offering smaller and intensively flavored fruits. Today, in Maine for example, a certified organic wild blueberry farm sells the berries as fresh, frozen, dried and in preserves.
By the late 20th century, most homeowners had dropped the time-honored tradition of having a few berry bushes in their backyards, whether blueberries, gooseberries, currents or other types. By the end of the 20th century, berries became more of an item that showed up in the supermarket as a commercial product. But local blueberry farming and home growing are old traditions enjoying a revival. U-pick blueberry farms are finding visitors come from miles to pick their own berries in the sunshine, and to give their children a sense of harvesting fresh from the earth. And people with secret family recipes made with blueberries are selling kitchen-created blueberry items over the Internet and to local customers.
(c) 2006 Barbara Adams
Barbara Adams Author: Micro Eco-Farming: Prospering from Backyard to Small Acreage in Partnership with the Earth (New World Publishing) http://www.MicroEcoFarming.com