Blueberries bring forth a sense of nostalgia. They conjure memories of blue-stained hands from picking wild berries and blue-stained tongues from popping every other one in our mouths. They remind us of the smell of homemade pies, scones, and muffins coming out of the oven in late summer. And they are proof that sometimes the best ingredients are the simple ones you can find right in your own backyard.
We celebrate this quintessentially American crop in our Triple Berry Blend Seed Bar, the first bar 88 Acres ever made. They also shine in our Summer Edition Blueberry Lemon Seed Bars. We even add blueberry powder to our Smoky Chipotle Dressing for a fruity flare. In short, we share a distinct love for blueberries — and it turns out, we owe it all to a clever botanist and a determined farmer from New Jersey.
THE FIRST BLUEBERRY
The wild blueberry is one of four berries native to North America, along with cranberries, blackberries, and raspberries. The domestication of blueberries was achieved by two strangers who joined forces in the early 1900s. Frederick Coville, a botanist from the USDA, and Elizabeth White, a cranberry farmer’s daughter from New Jersey, worked together to breed a commercial blueberry. Together, they cross-pollinated hundreds of blueberry plants to find ones that produced high yields of large, sweet berries. By 1916, they had found the perfect blueberry variety, the Rubel, which quickly made its way to farms across the country, adapting to new climates as it went.
Today, there are more than 25 different varieties of blueberries grown and sold around the country. New varieties have been developed to produce fruit at different times of year, from early spring to late fall, so we can enjoy them for as many months as nature will allow. But it turns out that growing blueberries is difficult because they require very acidic soils, which are not suitable for growing most other crops.
FROM BUSH TO BUSHEL
Blueberry plants, from the same family as cranberries, are initially established from seeds. Once they are fully grown, more roots spread through the soil, which grow into new blueberry bushes nearby. Each new bush that grows from the roots of the original is genetically different from its neighbors. Wild blueberries grow on low bushes that are only 4 to 15 inches high, whereas commercial blueberries grow on highbush plants that can reach up to 6 feet tall.
Blueberry plants have chill hours, which are the number of hours the plant spends in weather below 45 degrees. These chill hours are essential for the blueberry plant because it keeps the plant dormant long enough until it is ready to produce new foliage and fruit in the spring. The chill hours change depending on the variety and location where it’s grown. For example, blueberries grown in the southern US need 0 to 250 chill hours while blueberries grown in New England might need 900-1200 chill hours.
Fun fact: For the best blueberry yields, it is recommended to have two to four honeybee hives per acre of blueberry bushes.
In spring, the blueberry plant blooms with white cup-like flowers during a two- to four-week period. Once pollinated by honeybees, each flower eventually becomes one blueberry that starts out hard and green, then becomes reddish-purple, and finally turns a rich blue coated in a silvery sheen called the "bloom." The bloom signals that the blueberries are at their peak freshness and are ready to be harvested. Blueberries are picked by hand and the bushes are passed over with machines to collect any remaining ripe berries. After the harvest season is over in fall and winter, their leaves and stems turn a brilliant bright red.
Having developed the first domesticated blueberry, the US is still the world’s largest blueberry producer, growing over half a billion pounds in 2018. In the US, 38 states grow commercial blueberries, with Washington, Oregon, Michigan, New Jersey, Georgia, and Arkansas as some of the top blueberry growers. But Maine is probably the state that comes to mind when we think of blueberries because it is still the world’s largest producer of wild blueberries that grow on small bushes roughly a foot off the ground. About 10% of all the blueberries grown in North America come from Maine.
Blueberries are one of the most popular fruits because they are high in antioxidants. Antioxidants are powerful compounds found in some foods that protect our cells from damage and protect us against many of the factors related to aging, like neuro-degenerative disorders. Blueberries have been found to contain the highest levels of antioxidants of any other commonly eaten fruit or vegetable.
Blueberries also contain high amounts of vitamin C, which boosts our immune system, vitamin K, which promotes bone and blood health, and manganese, which promotes bone health and helps convert protein, carbs, and fat into energy. Like many other fruits and vegetables, blueberries also contain high amounts of fiber, which is essential for heart and gut health while also keeping us feeling fuller for longer when incorporated into snacks and meals.
Fresh blueberries are now available in US grocery stores year-round. You can buy North American blueberries between April and September, and South American blueberries during the other months. More than half of all blueberries are sold fresh, but the rest are frozen or dried to be used in everything from smoothies to granola bars.