Garden to Table
June 28, 2007
As one of the few human foods naturally colored blue, the sweet, juicy blueberry is truly a unique, inspirational fruit. Legendary for its health benefits, the blueberry, armed with a five-pointed blossom, was once believed to be an agent of the Great Spirit in Native American culture, sent to relieve the hunger of children during a famine. So succulent is its flavor that bears have been known to travel, with an empty stomach, more than 15 miles a day just to taste a bite.
Both cultivated and picked wild, the blueberry fruit is about five to 15 mm in diameter with a flared crown at the end. Pale green at first, then reddish-purple, then dark purplish-blue (deriving its bold color from anthocyanin, a water soluble pigment), blueberry season runs from about April to October, depending on the region, and peaks in July, which is National Blueberry Month.
Native to North America (the North American crop accounts for nearly 90 percent of the world production), blueberries are also now grown in Europe, South Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and South America. The most common cultivated species in the U.S. is known as the Northern Highbush Blueberry. Produced in over 30 states, New Jersey is the largest supplier of fresh highbush blueberries. Michigan is the leading supplier of processed (frozen) blueberries.
Since they require a small space, blueberries are an excellent crop for home gardens. That is, if your backyard is acidic enough. Blueberry plants need highly acidic soil conditions for optimal growing and should be planted in areas where temperatures do not drop below -20F. Thriving on full sun and moisture (about one to two inches of water per week), blueberries fare best in sandy soils. Planting on loam or clay loam soils necessitates the addition of raised beds for better drainage.
Blueberry plants flower in the spring, but take about three seasons to fruit. They do not become fully productive for about six years. To yield a successful harvest, plants must be mulched, pruned, fertilized and pollinated. In fact, in Maine, where 25 percent of all North American blueberries are grown, pollination requires approximately 50,000 honeybee hives. Maine is the leading producer of lowbush (wild) blueberries. The leading highbush (cultivated) producer is Michigan, followed by New Jersey, Oregon, North Carolina, Georgia and Washington.
When the berry reaches its deep blue color, it is carefully picked, either by hand, or by special machines that shake the plants to drop the berries into buckets. Then they are sent to packing houses, where they are chilled, and ultimately delivered to market within hours of harvest. Other blueberries are flash frozen at extremely low temperatures (to give the blueberry an individual fruit identify) and backed into cello bags, canned in water or syrup, dehydrated to produce a dried fruit, or liquefied for beverages. Dried blueberries can last up to 12 months when stored away from intense heat and light. Fresh berries should last for about one week refrigerated.
"Fresh blueberries should be free of mold and have that powdery look that repesents their natural protection," says Mark Hurst, founder and president of Hursts Berry Farm in Sheridan, Oregon, and the Chairman of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council. "I recommend turning the package over and looking at the bottom. Avoid packages with crushed or leaky berries. Once home, keep your blueberries refrigerated and don't wash them until you are ready to use them."
Low in calories and sodium, cholesterol-free, and a good source of fiber, blueberries are rich in antioxidants and contain measurable quantities of ellagic acid, which has been shown to inhibit chemically induced cancer in lab studies. They may even help with aging. A study conducted by the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center discovered that feeding blueberries to lab rats slowed age-related loss in their mental capacity.
One serving size of fresh blueberries (or one cup) contains 80 calories, five grams of dietary fiber, 19 grams of total carbohydrates, and one gram of protein.