Current Nature: The Rich History Of Blueberries

Jenny Kafas, Conservation Research and Stewardship Intern at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation •

Photo 1 handful of blueberries

Mid-July is approaching, which means the start of one of my favorite summer activities is almost upon us; blueberry picking! The practice of foraging for blueberries in this region dates long before me, and long before the arrival of European settlers. The indigenous people of New England were advanced farmers, however, blueberries and other native fruits were not crops that were farmed. Instead, they were foraged from their natural environments. Often, children were tasked with collecting wild blueberries which was commonly seen as a fun summer activity.

During this time of year, indigenous people (the Wampanoag here on Nantucket) used farmed vegetables as a main food source but included blueberries in their diet for added nutrition by eating them fresh or using them in a variety of other recipes including stews and breads1. As for later seasons, blueberries were often stored until then, as they last longer than other types of berries that grow in the area and can be enjoyed well past their season (an important note if you end up foraging more than you can eat!). Some great ways to preserve blueberries include making jams, drying, or freezing them.

Blueberries were also seen as important medicinal plants. In addition to the berries, the roots, stems, flowers, and leaves were used for medicinal purposes. In fact, it has been accepted for hundreds of years that blueberries are powerful antioxidants, which means they can reduce the amount of harmful chemicals in your body. Some medicinal plant field guides mention the historic use of blueberries as “blood purifiers”2. Research now tells us that blueberries have higher antioxidant levels than most common fruits and really do have this effect. This makes them incredibly healthy, with many experts even categorizing them as a “superfood”.

Most of us have lived our whole lives having the option of buying a pack of farmed blueberries from the supermarket, but for many years, the only way people were able to get them was through foraging. It was only in 1916 that two botanists, Elizabeth White by trade and Frederick Coville by training, developed the first blueberry variety for commercial use. This was done by picking wild plants that had particularly good features (e.g. plants with sweet berries, plants that grow a lot of berries, etc.) and breeding them with each other until the resulting plants consistently had desirable blueberries. The seeds of these plants were then collected and sold to farmers. The development of this first variety was important because now blueberries could be grown with reliable abundance and taste. This allowed commercial production of blueberries for the first time, kickstarting the blueberry industry which is still of great economic importance in the region and has become an important crop in other regions around the world.

Photo 2 tray of blueberries

While the convenience of buying blueberries at the supermarket is great, there is still nothing quite like finding and picking them yourself. Many of the critters we share the island with agree and use the blueberries they forage for as a main food source. With that in mind, it’s important when foraging that you are mindful of how much you are taking by not picking all the berries from one plant or area. That way there is sure to be enough left to share with the other animals on Nantucket. It is also important to be sure you have correctly identified the plant you are picking from before eating its fruit. For more tips on safe and mindful foraging, see this article.

Don’t like blueberries? Nantucket is home to many other delicious wild berries including blackberries, grapes, beach plums, and cherries! Come join us here at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation for our Bountiful Berries Nature Ramble on July 12th where Dr. Sarah Bois will talk about the many berries on Nantucket and how they support wildlife on the island. The nature ramble is free to attend; register here!

1 Indian New England Before the Mayflower by Howard S. Russell

2 Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants by Steven Foster/James A. Duke

Stay tuned for more editions of Current Nature, a bi-weekly column featuring seasonal topics, natural history information, and advice on the outdoors from the staff at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation.

Loading Ad
Loading Ad
Loading Ad

Current Opinion