History of the Blueberry
Blueberries are one of the few fruit species native to North America and have a colorful history dating back to pre-colonial times. The blueberry is in the genus Vaccinium and is closely related to the azalea, cranberry and rhododendron. Species in the blueberry family are known by many names, including cowberry, bilberry, farkleberry and sparkleberry. Blueberries are also mistakenly referred to as huckleberries, which are actually a different genus (Gaylussacia).
The blueberry was gathered and used by Native Americans for centuries before colonists arrived from Europe. The blueberry was sacred to the Indians in part because the blossom-end of the berry is shaped like a five-pointed star. The Indians believed that the berries were sent by the Great Spirit during a great famine to relieve the hunger of their children.
The Native Americans ate blueberries fresh and dried them to preserve them for use in winter. The berries were mixed with meat to make pemmican, and mixed with cornmeal, honey and water to make a pudding called “sautauthig”. The juice of the fruit was used to make cough syrup while the leaves were made into a tea meant to fortify the blood. The juice was also used as a dye for cloth and baskets. Dried berries were used in soups and stews and used as a rub for meat.
When English settlers arrived in America, they tried to implement English farming practices in America. Coupled with an attempt at communal living, this proved disastrous. The New England settlers nearly starved to death until the Indians taught them about native plants. In addition to teaching the settlers about growing corn, the Wampanoag Indians taught English settlers of Plymouth how to gather and dry blueberries to keep them through the winter.
The blueberries used by the Indians were the wild, or low bush variety. Most blueberries that are cultivated today are the high bush variety that was domesticated in the early 20th century by Elizabeth White and Dr. Frederick Coville. The plants have been improved over the years to increase the size, color and yield of the berry. Even thought the wild berries are smaller, they are more flavorful than their cultivated cousins. Cultivation has been so successful that America now grows over 90% of the blueberries in the world.
What the Indians knew years ago has recently been rediscovered: blueberries are very good for your health. During the Civil War soldiers drank a blueberry beverage that was supposed to improve their health. Now recent studies showing the health benefits of eating blueberries have driven blueberry consumption even higher.
Blueberries are easily preserved by freezing, canning and drying. They can also be juiced or made into jam or preserves. The surge in the popularity of blueberries has caused home gardeners to plant these shrubs in nearly every growing area of America.
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U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council: History
The University of Vermont: Blueberries Super Antioxidant