Maine Wild Blueberry 101

Kate at Living the Frugal Life asked about the cultivation of Maine’s “wild” blueberries, so I thought I’d answer in a new post.

Wild blueberries are in the Heath family and are related to cranberries, bilberries and huckleberries as well as highbush blueberries, vaccinium corymbosum.  There are several sub species of wild blueberry but the most common is vaccinium angustifolium, the low sweet blueberry.  Wild blueberries thrive on the thin, highly acidic, peaty soil found in much of Maine.  They are naturally occurring understory plants which spread naturally via seed or rhizome.  The berries are small in comparison to highbush blueberries, and very sweet.

Blueberries are grown on barrens, fields with thin acidic soil, often with visible granite ledge, and are stunningly beautiful.  They bloom in May, and berries are ripe in July and August.  A ripe field is covered with a haze of blue.  In the fall, the leaves turn a bright red, rivaling any swamp maple for beauty.  I highly encourage a trip to the barrens in the fall for breathtaking scenery.

Blueberries are intensively managed these days.  Native Americans cultivated blueberry barrens by periodically burning the field, which eliminated competing plants but allowed the blueberry rhizome to live and regrow.  Modern practice varies between mowing, herbicides, or occasional burning.  Plants are managed to produce every other year, being productive the year following mowing.  There has been an outbreak of a virulent fungus in some areas this year, affected and at risk fields will be burned to eliminate the fungus.

Blueberries are traditionally picked, or raked, with a blueberry rake, a comb-toothed tool with attached bucket.  It is very hard work.  Read a description at Season’s Eatings Farm blog, and see photos at Hubbard Rakes.  In years past local youth would rake berries, (some of Dan’s students have raked blueberries) but now rakers are more likely to be migrant farm workers, who are used to hard farm labor.

We purchased our berries in bulk, directly from the field, and as a result paid a bit above the wholesale price for them.  The berries were clean and fresh, raked that day, and in our freezer that afternoon.  If we were to buy these frozen at the supermarket, it would put a serious dent in my grocery budget, but by bagging and freezing ourselves, we get great product at an affordable price, but are still supporting our local growers.  It is a win win situation; I am lucky and believe me, I know it!

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2 Responses to “Maine Wild Blueberry 101”

  1. mangochild Says:

    Thanks for the primer on wild Maine blueberries. I do the same with our blueberries, picking them, and freezing the bulk of them immediately. I’ve never heard of raking berries, wow. So do they grow very low to the ground, or are they on traditional bushes that are raked instead of picked?

  2. Kate@LivingTheFrugalLife Says:

    Hey, Ali! A belated thanks for the explanation. I had no idea that burning was part of the cultivation of blueberries. I suppose that I have some wild Maine (eg lowbush) blueberry bushes growing in my yard. I’d never claim it though, since we’re not in Maine. I really look forward to our first harvests of these delicious treats. Perhaps next year!

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