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One hundred years ago, no domesticated blueberries were sold anywhere in the world simply because they did not exist. Today, the market for farm-grown berries is worth more than $810 million annually and covers a good chunk of the globe, from New Jersey to Nova Scotia, Argentina to Australia, Chile to China.
When I ate my first blueberry, it was in my grandpa’s patch in the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania, and I only knew two things — it tasted good and I wanted more. Twenty-five years later, when my wife and I planted 1,000 bushes to start our pick-your-own blueberry farm in Floyd County, Va., I still didn’t know the story of this amazing fruit. I had to write a book, “The Blueberry Years,” to learn the history of how this berry came to be, and why we continue to demand so many.
Domesticating the wild blueberry
In 1911, two strangers, a scientist named Frederick Coville and a farmer named Elizabeth White, collaborated to domesticate the wild blueberry in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. Coville had the plant and soil knowledge, White had the land, good neighbors and knowledge of the local wild stock. Together, they bred and crossed hundreds of bushes to find berries that consistently yielded sweeter and larger fruit. Some of their varieties, such as Blueray and Bluecrop, are still industry standards.
How did this berry’s popularity grow so prolifically in 100 years? Good marketing obviously played a part. White was featured in many publications, and hailed by The Saturday Evening Post in the 1950s as “The Blueberry Queen.”
But Americans devour and drink over 450 million pounds of blueberries every year, and good marketing can’t fully account for how integral they’ve become to our lives. The answer lies in the berry itself, specifically in its amazingly good taste. We love them fresh, primarily, but we also consume our blues frozen, dried, puréed, juiced, canned and concentrated. We drink blueberry juices, blueberry beers, blueberry wines and even, if we’re lucky, blueberry moonshine. We eat our way through blueberry pies, blueberry pancakes, blueberry yogurt, blueberry muffins, blueberry cereals and health bars. We have a hard time getting enough.
Another reason we eat so many blueberries is their many health benefits. They have been hailed as our No. 1 antioxidant by one study, packing 40% more cancer-fighting punch than strawberries, the next food on the list. Scientists have shown blueberries improve short-term memory, prevent urinary tract infections, reduce heart disease and aid in eye health. Lastly, each blueberry is low in calories (83 calories in a cup), virtually fat-free and packed with fiber. One doctor recommends eating a half a cup a day to maximize all of these health benefits. Another doctor says he “pops them like M&Ms.”
Blueberries, though, offer another health benefit few people take advantage of: the pleasure of picking them. On our farm, folks came not only for the fruit but for the joy of a day in the country, a morning surrounded by woods and wind, an evening full of birdsong and sunset. The ultimate definition of “fresh and local” is a ripe berry just off the bush. There’s no better way to savor the sweetness.
Henry David Thoreau knew this. He relished the “little blue sacks full of swampy nectar and ambrosia commingled,” and he found he learned more while outside picking than in his Harvard classes. Thoreau understood that harvesting is a holy act, “a sort of sacrament,” and he writes that the “value of these … fruits is not in the mere possession or eating of them, but in the sight and enjoyment of them.” Blueberries were for him, and us, “the not forbidden fruit.”
So, eat up. Enjoy the health benefits and incredible flavor of blueberries by filling your freezer and eating them all year. And tap into the blueberry’s other health benefit by visiting a U-pick farm and making that quiet music of berry falling into pail. Or even better, grow your own. Blueberry bushes make beautiful landscape additions to any house, and they hold their beauty year-round. Even though you’ll find more and more blueberries in the market, gracing everything from bagels to juices, the real value this fruit offers is to pull us out into the world, to nourish body and spirit as we take and pick and eat.
Top photo: Jim Minick. Credit: Cyndi Williams