As of this week, Maine blueberries are officially in season — picking has started at farms across the state, and the annual harvest in Washington County has just gotten underway. Maine’s favorite fruit will start appearing at markets and stores everywhere any day now. Think you know everything there is to know about blueberries? Think again. Here’s 10 facts about Vaccinium angustifolium, the Maine lowbush blueberry.
1. Blueberries, both high and low bush, are a member of the genus Vaccinium, which also includes cranberries, lingonberries and huckleberries, and the family Ericaceae, which includes rhododendrons and azaleas. Blueberries in particular are native to North America and were only introduced into Europe in the 19th century.
2. The Passamaquoddy collected and used blueberries for centuries, eating them fresh in season and dried in the winter. They made blueberry leaf tea, blueberry syrup was used as a cough remedy, and they used the juice to dye cloth.
3. Blueberries were believed sacred by the Native Americans because the blossom end of the berry is shaped like a five-pointed star, symbolizing the belief that the Great Spirit sent blueberries to the people to save children from famine.
4. Native Americans were also the first to burn parts of blueberry barrens to encourage the growth of new bushes. They taught European settlers how to properly manage the barrens, and the many uses for the little fruit.
5. Maine blueberries were canned and shipped to Union troops during the Civil War, which became a food staple for soldiers and an important way to prevent scurvy — not to mention their proven health benefits.
6. In 1883, 40 years after blueberries began being harvested commercially in Maine, Columbia native Abijah Tabbett designed the blueberry rake — a design that has remained virtually unchanged in the 130 years since. Today, Hubbard Rakes makes aluminum blueberry rakes right in Jonesport.
7. The wild blueberry is one of just three commercially grown fruit crops native to North America — the others being cranberries and American grapes. Maine produces the vast majority of the world’s lowbush blueberries, and produces 15% of the world’s blueberry crop overall, wild or not.
8. Last year Maine harvested just over 87 million pounds of blueberries, which is on par with the average of the past decade. The last full economic survey was done in 2007, which estimated that Maine’s blueberry industry brought about $250 million into the state. The blueberry harvest also brings about 2,500 jobs to Maine, from mechanical harvester operators to processing plant workers.
9. Wild blueberries have the highest antioxidant capacity per serving out of any widely available cultivated fruit. USDA researchers found that a one-cup serving of wild blueberries (85 calories) had more total antioxidant capacity than a serving of cranberries, strawberries, plums, raspberries and even cultivated high bush blueberries.
10. Those blueberry muffins and bagels you get at the grocery store? Blueberry cereal? The little dehydrated blueberries found in pancake mixes and packets of instant oatmeal? Almost certainly not real blueberries. Mostly just a combination of sugar, corn syrup, starch, flavorings and dye. Making homemade baked goods from scratch? You know the berries are real.
The University of Maine Cooperative Extension helped compile this list of blueberry facts.