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A Brief History of Blueberries

December 28th, 2012 Seasonal

In July 2003, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) dubbed July National Blueberry Month. The department's official proclamation cites numerous reasons for dedicating a whole month to one specific food, including the fact that the blueberry plays a vital role in America's fruit industry. The USDA claims that nearly 46,000 acres of U.S. soil is strictly set aside to the cultivation and harvesting of the blueberry, and that within the last twenty-years, the highbush blueberry strand has experienced an increased production of nearly 65 percent (in 2002, this totaled 188.8 million pounds of juicy spherical goodness). While government documents usually refrain from using playful descriptions, the USDA's proclamation still doesn't neglect to characterize the blueberry as "plump and delicious."

Of course, the fruit's vital role in America is nothing new. Before settlers made their way to the United States, the Native Americans had already reaped the benefits of the blueberry. Just like we do today, they consumed them in a variety of ways and infused them into soups and stews. According to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council (USHBC), blueberries at the time were even dried and crushed into a powder so they could be applied to meat and act as a preservative. The Indians also didn't neglect to utilize the health benefits of the berry and would use them as remedies for a cough or in teas.

Blueberries played such a vital role in the Native American's diet that they even became a part of their folklore. The top of the blueberry features a star-shaped indentation, and according these myths, a great spirit sent down the "star berries" in order to satiate the children's hunger during famine.

When settlers first came to America, they also learned the merits of the blueberry. The USHBC reports that the colonists who arrived in Plymouth faced many hardships when it came to farming and gathering food due to the foreign soil and climate. The Native Americans assisted the colonists by teaching them to plant corn and use native vegetation in their diets. One of their methods involved dehydrating blueberries and saving them for the harsh winter months.

Blueberries would gain significant appeal in the later half of the 19th century when the they were harvested up north and used to feed Union soldiers. According to the Intuit Business Directory, in the 1880s, the fruit was produced through a canning industry in the Northeast.

The blueberry is part of the Vaccinium family, a plant that has hundreds of species grown throughout the world and bears names like the Southern Rabbiteye and the Lowbush. It would be one specific strand of blueberry - the highbush - that would help make the fruit a mass-marketed commodity.

According to the Whitesbog Preservation Trust, In the early 1900's, Elizabeth White, who was the daughter of a New Jersey farmer in Whitesbog, New Jersey, came upon a USDA publication titled Experiments in Blueberry Culture, authored by Dr. Frederick Coville. White was interested in increasing production at the Whitesbog farm, so she teamed up with Coville and tried to find strains of wild blueberries with ideal characteristics that could be crossbred to form a delicious and farmable fruit. Eventually, with the help of the Pinneys, or local woodsmen, the highbush blueberry was developed.

Today the highbush is enjoyed worldwide and is continually cultivated for greater improvements. Its birthplace - the Northeast - is still the leading producer of the plant. According to the USDA, the harvesting begins in April and its peak season is in July, thus making it the perfect month to celebrate America's fruit.