The first berries I helped pick, when I was a kid, were strawberries. Makes sense. Close to the ground, easy to reach, I loved to eat them, but they still make my arms itch. When I grew tall enough (and brave enough), I donned an old flannel shirt to protect my arms and headed for the old apple orchard where blackberry vines wrapped their way up around the neglected apple trees. Blackberries are still my favorite for homemade pie.
Finally, in my twenties, I picked my first blueberries (not on our farm) and discovered this was berry picking at its finest – no thorns and no stooping, just beautiful, plump berries at eye level. That blueberry grove was part of church property across the road from the Zion Hill Church of the Brethren just north of Columbiana. We picked by permission of a friend, a member there, and our donation to her for the berries went to the church.
The blueberry is one of the few fruits native to North America. The Northeast Native American tribes revered blueberries and much folklore developed around them. The Great Spirit sent the “star berries” to relieve the children’s hunger during a famine. Tea made from the leaves of the plant was thought to be good for the blood. Blueberry juice was used to treat coughs. The juice also made an excellent dye for baskets and cloth. In food preparation, dried blueberries were added to stews, soups and meats. Blueberries were used for medicinal purposes along with the leaves and roots.
Early colonists learned from Native Americans how to gather blueberries, dry them under the summer’s sun and store them for the winter. They became an important food source. A beverage made with blueberries was an important staple for Civil War soldiers.
Blueberry enthusiasts owe a great gratitude to the many agriculturalists on our continent and abroad who have pioneered the development of the U.S. highbush blueberry industry!
North America is the world’s leading blueberry producer, accounting for nearly 90percent of world production at the present time. Harvest runs from mid-April through early October, with its peak in July, which is also known as National Blueberry Month. Highbush blueberries are perennial, long-lived, deciduous, woody shrubs. They belong to the family Ericaceae, which also includes such plants as cranberry, azalea, rhododendron, and heather.
Fresh, canned, dried, freeze-dried or frozen, blueberries are processed in a number of different forms for availability year round. As Native Americans somehow knew, long before today’s scientific fanfare, blueberries do contain beneficial vitamins and minerals as well as antioxidants and phytochemicals. Research continues to disclose new health and nutrient benefits from eating blueberries. For everything you want to know about blueberries and more, visit www.blueberry.org. Check out their U-pick page for details on picking your own blueberries!
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