Blueberries connect generations with nature

  • Blueberries on the bush. Photo by Eric Aldrich

Monday, July 25, 2016 3:51PM

It’s a bonus year for blueberries.

Whether you choose the container on a string method or just a pail – like Sal in “Blueberries for Sal” – you should be able to get a quart around here in an hour or less.

One of my earliest memories is at our camp in Downeast Maine, picking wild blueberries with my brother and sister. Under blue skies of an August morning, a gentle breeze off the marsh and the warm smell of pine in the air, those little lowbush berries were destined for pancakes in Nana’s iron skillet. Nature’s harvest and the whole day ahead. How could life be any better?

You don’t have to search far in your memory banks to find the blueberry. Whether last week or decades ago, we pick with our grandparents, our parents, our spouses, our kids and our grandkids. We treasure those sweet summer days with the ones we love.

We pick for pancakes. We pick for pie. We pick for muffins and crumble. We pick and don’t even know why. We pick for cereal and jam and nothing at all, just plain blueberries right out of the hand. How could life be any better?

An ancient impulse

The urge to gather transcends generations, beginning with the dawn of humanity, if not before. It’s in our DNA. It’s the impulse to provide sustenance, whether berries or meat. We take care of ourselves and our people.

The same impulse touches black bears, chipmunks, raccoons, cedar waxwings, chickadees, ruffed grouse and the list goes on. They all love blueberries, providing soft mast that sustains wildlife through the summer and into the fall, when fatty, protein-rich, nutritious acorns and other hard mast comes along.

Unlike apples, which are native to Asia, blueberries are our true native soft mast species. And without getting into a lot of detail, around here there are basically two kinds: highbush and lowbush. Both thrive in our fairly acidic, thin soils, but they’re very different.

In these parts, lowbush are found in clearings and sunny roadsides. They reign supreme in parts of northern New Hampshire and Maine. A great place to find lowbush in New Hampshire are in the Ossipee Pine Barrens, where The Nature Conservancy has restored fire to pitch pine/scrub oak habitat, reviving berries in the process.

Our camp in Maine is in the heart of America’s blueberry belt, the blueberry barrens in Hancock and Washington County. Here, the lowbush is barely higher than your ankle, and the barrens roll on for acres in the sandy, acidic soils, interrupted by rocks and occasional pines. It’s a beautiful sight in summer, speckled with sweet, blue morsels, and in fall, when leaves are blazing red. They’re harvested with rakes – kind of a box with teeth and a handle. It’s backbreaking work, but this is blueberries on the commercial scale.

Around here, most of our wild berries are highbush, best found around the edges of our lakes and ponds and on clear hilltops, not to mention cultivated sites. They don’t lend themselves to the kind of commercial scale as lowbush, but they can produce big, hearty berries.

Some years can be a bust for blueberries, but not this year. Scope lakesides and hilltops and you’ll find highbush loaded with berries. I’d share a few hot-spots, but I’m not that generous.

 Nature’s harvest

If you need any inspiration to pick – other than knowing that this is a good berry year – take a few minutes to read Robert McCloskey’s classic children’s book, “Blueberries for Sal.” When Sal and her mother go picking for blueberries, they get mixed up with a mother bear and her cub. Both mother bear and Sal’s mother know that stocking up on blueberries will help them through the winter – they just go about it in different ways.

Sal’s method for picking was a little tin pail. But create your own harvest system, whether it’s a baggie or a container with a string around your neck. Be as compulsive as you want.

It’s summer. The days are long. Leisure is in the air. The fruit is ripe. Nature’s harvest and the whole day ahead. How could life be any better?


Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock. Contact him at ericadine@gmail.com.