Life is full of simple pleasures, most of them free. One of mine is picking wild berries. Right now the blueberries are just coming into ripeness at Rock Ridge. Yesterday morning Dan and I visited the site for our fourth MAPS session. It was slow for birds, with just 11 caught in six hours of effort. Much of the rest of my time was spent snacking on wild blueberries.
We observed the short bushes in bloom back in May, and at the time didn’t know what they were – I’d only seen blueberry bushes once before, and at that time they were already fruiting. After some flipping through guides I finally settled on Lowbush Blueberry for these short flowering shrubs, even though the flowers I had photos of were mostly pink or pinkish, and Lowbush Blueberry flowers were supposed to be white.
Two months later, my identification was confirmed, at least to genus. Now, the actual berries are easy to ID, whether on the plant or off! There are two primary species of blueberry grown in North America: highbush and lowbush. Lowbush refers to Vaccinium angustifolium, which is also known as wild blueberry. Cultivated blueberries also go by the name of highbush blueberry, and are V. corymbosum. Both species are grown and harvested at a commercial level. As of the 2007 census, blueberries are commercially grown on 47,941 hectares (63,077 acres) of land in Canada, primarily in Quebec.
Besides these two, there are an additional 450 species in the genus Vaccinium, most of them found in the cooler northern hemisphere. Eighteen occur in Canada. The genus also contains related shrubs such as cranberries and huckleberries. Vaccinium species prefer well-drained, acidic soils that are often associated with rocky boreal or montane habitats, or bogs and heaths.
I’d been feeling pretty sure of my ID right until I sat down to start this post. In doing a bit more research on blueberries, and discovering that there were so many species, I began to think it may not be lowbush after all. Now I’m thinking it’s probably Velvet-leaf Blueberry, V. myrtilloides. Also called Canadian Blueberry, this species grows across Canada and the northeastern US. One website noted that flowers can be greenish-white or pinkish, which matches what I observed among our plants. However, there seems to be some confusion regarding the taxonomy of these two species, and they apparently will hybridize in areas where they occur together.
Blueberries grow from underground rhizomes, and can spread into large patches that sprawl across 30 feet (10 m) or more when conditions are good. The species is extremely fire-tolerant, growing quickly back from its roots after a blaze burns through the forest. In fact, where blueberries are are cultivated, they are often burned back to the roots to stimulate the next season’s growth.
A large section of the park was burned over (twice) about 80 years ago in the “Blueberry Wars” – disputes over picking rights of the wild blueberries growing on the land at the time escalated until someone either accidentally or intentionally lit a fire – perhaps in a fit of “if I can’t have them, you can’t either!”. The fires helped to shape the current landscape of the park by exposing the thin, parched topsoil to erosion.
The berries provide food for many species. They’re a favourite with bears, and in the north portion of the park there are definitely bears present. Although we haven actually seen the mammal yet, there are signs of their presence, such as flipped-over rocks (from looking underneath for invertebrates and other food items) or piles of scat. Bears are pretty wary creatures, and we make enough noise tromping through the bush that most likely one would depart long before we ever were aware of its presence.
Birds feed on the berries, too. I rather suspect they’re particularly enjoyed by thrushes, including robins, as well as catbirds and thrashers. In my experience, thrushes and catbirds are the messiest birds to band because their fruit-filled droppings usually leave a colourful stain on your clothing, and you can pretty much count on them to let loose on you at least once during the process.
Blueberries are loaded with vitamin C, and are often touted for their antioxidant properties. They were a common fruit in the diets of Native Americans, and were very versatile, eaten fresh or dried, in meals such as soups or meats, or on their own. The leaves could be used to make a medicinal tea. And of course, the berry juices make an excellent dye.
You can buy blueberry rakes that make harvesting much easier for commercial-scale blueberry crops, but there weren’t enough berries on our little shrubs to make such a tool necessary. I plucked them off by hand, and almost immediately popped them in my mouth. Mmm mmm. Hard to beat fresh-off-the-bush berries.