Wild blueberry season sneaks up on me every year, and I don’t mind the scrumptious surprise one bit.
This year, it happened on the Fourth of July. I was hiking up Great Pond Mountain in Orland with my husband, Derek, and our dog, Juno. As we followed the Stuart Gross Trail up the gentle west slope of the mountain, I noticed a purple-blue berry nestled in a low-lying bush.
The berry wasn’t quite ripe, and it was surrounded by even less ripe, green blueberries. But I had hope.
Farther up the trail, out of the shade of the forest, we started spotting ripe wild blueberries all over the place. We crouched on exposed granite bedrock to pluck and immediately snack on the tiny, flavor-packed fruit.
Juno showed some interest by sniffing around, so we offered her a few. Before long, she was nudging our hands for more.
Wild blueberries can be found growing alongside many public trails in Maine, especially up in the mountains, where conditions for growing are right. However, it’s important to check and see if berry picking is permitted on the lands you visit.
Great Pond Mountain Conservation Trust, which owns and manages the trails on Great Pond Mountain, allows casual berry picking on their properties. However, the land trust asks that visitors not remove wildflowers or other plants.
Each place has its rules, and they can be fairly detailed. For example, in Acadia National Park, blueberry picking is limited to one dry half-gallon per person per day, which is plenty if you’re just picking a few to snack on while hiking.
The Acadia Superintendent’s Compendium, where you can find a long list of park rules, also states that berries should be picked in a manner that doesn’t damage the remainder of the plant. I think that’s a good guideline for berry picking on any property. While picking, step with care so you don’t trample the bushes and surrounding plants. Try to stay on rock surfaces if possible.
Trailside blueberries are a wonderful little treat, but if you’re looking to harvest a good amount of blueberries — say for a blueberry pie — your best bet is to visit a field. Throughout Maine, wild blueberries grow in abundance in large fields that are often managed and harvested by farmers.
It’s important to check property rules or obtain permission before picking blueberries from any fields that aren’t your own. Some blueberry farmers will allow you to pick your own blueberries for a fee. These are called “pick-your-own” or “U-pick” farms.
Some blueberry fields are managed by organizations such as land trusts. Cooper Farm at Caterpillar Hill in Sedgwick is a good example. It’s owned by the Blue Hill Heritage Trust, which allows visitors to pick blueberries in the fields.
Maine produces more wild blueberries than any other state in the nation. Last year, we processed 105 million pounds of wild blueberries. That’s the weight of 23 space shuttles.
Our low-bush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium Ait.) is native to northern New England and Atlantic Canada, according to information provided online by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. It wasn’t planted here. It naturally inhabits mountain tops and glacial outwash plains that formed about 10,000 years ago.
If you ever noticed that blueberries sometimes appear to be slightly different in appearance, that’s because any given blueberry field can have as many as 1,500 genetically distinct wild blueberry plants. This results in a variety of berry flavors, shapes and colors.
It’s fun to think about how long people have enjoyed eating wild blueberries in Maine, and how people have incorporated the berries into a variety of different dishes.
The Indigenous people of the area have long cultivated and celebrated wild blueberries. The UMaine Cooperative Extension specifically recognizes the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and the Penobscot Nation communities for passing on their knowledge and experience with these plants.
Blueberries are also prized by many of the wild animals that call Maine home, especially black bears. During blueberry season, which generally stretches from early July through August, black bear poop is often just a mass of mashed up blueberries. I’ve seen it on hiking trails many times.
Luckily for Juno, blueberries are also OK for dogs to eat, according to the American Kennel Club. Rich in antioxidants and packed with fiber, they can serve as a nutritious snack for pups. However, I’m not sure how much Juno actually enjoys the flavor. On Great Pond Mountain, she would gobble them up from our hands if we offered them to her, but I caught her spitting some of the berries back out to chase as they rolled across the granite.
While berries make a wonderful trailside snack, be sure to properly identify them before consuming them. Some types of berries are toxic. Fortunately, not much looks or tastes like a blueberry. Huckleberries, which are also edible, are black and grow on taller bushes later in the season. They often grow in the same area as blueberries, so keep an eye out for them. They’re green right now in July.
I hope you get the opportunity to enjoy Maine’s wild blueberries this season. If you’re not comfortable identifying them and picking them on the trail, then buy some before your hike and enjoy them along the way. They’ll add some pep to your step. Just ask Juno.