I wrote this essay in 2006 or 2007, and a version of it appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Blueberries are the quintessential symbol of summer to me. Just as the season hits its full swing, these blue gems reach their perfect state of plumpness and taste sweet with just a hint of tart. A handful of blueberries on my whole grain flakes each morning is a daily ritual starting in June and lasting as long as possible.
Nutritionally, blueberries pack a powerful punch. They have few calories and no fat. But they’re full of fiber as well as antioxidants that neutralize free radicals that cause cell damage leading to cataracts, glaucoma, varicose veins, peptic ulcer, heart disease and cancer. Eating blueberries has been shown to improve memory and learning, promote urinary tract health and aid digestion. Much as I appreciate these aspects, to me, the spiritual significance of blueberries far outweighs nutritional advantage. Blueberries were the first food that I pledged to eat seasonally. Even though they are available many months of the year – often at exorbitant cost and questionable flavor – more than 15 years ago my husband and I decided that we would enjoy them to the fullest only at their peak time. In other words, we binge! Though we may begin the day with healthy grains and berries with skim milk, in the evening, we indulge our passion for blueberry pie with vanilla ice cream. I experience no guilt feelings about the sugar and fat I consume along with the antioxidants. I savor the taste of sunshine in each and every bite, treasuring it as a gift of the earth and offering silent thanks for such abundance.
Blueberry lovers really owe gratitude to the pine barrens region of central New Jersey and the ingenuity of its native daughter Elizabeth White, whose research in the early 20th century led to the cultivated berries that I enjoy so much today. Born in 1871 to a cranberry plantation-owning family, Elizabeth began working in the family business at age 22 and continued there until her death at age 83. In 1911, after reading about government researcher Frederick Coville’s investigation of cultivating blueberries, she offered to support his work and brought him to the family plantation, called Whitesbog. The wide variations among wild berries presented the major obstacle to successful cultivation of a uniform product for sale.
Elizabeth later wrote to a friend: “We used to go around sampling these fruits and one would be too sour and one would be too flat, one would be too skinny and finally, we would come to one that father would call ‘peachy,’ but we didn’t know how to propagate the plant. At that time, it was said among the farmers of New Jersey that blueberries could not be cultivated.”
In her work with Dr. Coville, Elizabeth did not allow a scientific focus to obscure the value of homegrown skill and knowledge. She learned that the woodsmen of the area distinguished the various berry bushes that grew in specific areas and enlisted their help to find the right bush for propagation. They were organized into teams and sent out with equipment to assess and bring back samples of blueberries. Only bushes with berries 5/8” in diameter or larger were desired. The woodsmen were paid $2 per bush plus for their time in searching and bringing back the plant. In later correspondence, Elizabeth recalled: “In getting the early bushes I tried to name every bush after the finder. And so I had the Adams bush found by Jim Adams, the Harding bush that was found by Ralph Harding, . . . When Sam Lemon found a bush I could not name it the Lemon bush so I called it the Sam. Finally, Rube Leek . . . found a bush. I did not know it was anything special at that time and I used the full name . . . Coville called it the Rube which I thought was a poor name for an aristocratic bush. He finally suggested we call it the Rubel. And the Rubel bush has really been the keystone of blueberry breeding.”
Only five years later, in 1916, they managed to produce a crop for sale. Today, New Jersey is a leader in raising cultivated fresh blueberries in the United States. Although not a staple food, blueberries were picked and eaten by native Americans, who also dried them to eat later and to use as flavoring in stews and soups. Some American Indians especially revered the blueberry, because the blossom end of the fruit forms a five-pointed star. They considered it a gift directly from the Great Spirit to hungry children. I agree!
Photo by Greg_e via Flickr under a Creative Commons license