Discovering Wild Blueberries

Summer in Maine would not be complete without wild blueberries! Many of us grew up reading Robert McCloskey’s book Blueberries for Sal. We can still hear our mothers reading the words, “Kerplink, kerplank, kerplunk.” That’s supposed to be the sound of Sal’s mother dropping plump, ripe blueberries into her metal pail. That’s right before they run into mama bear and baby bear! After picking enough berries, they head back to the house to can the sweet berries for the upcoming winter. I’m sure if you’re a fan of the book, eating wild Maine blueberries triggers these fond memories from the story!

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Much of coastal Maine is covered with large shafts of blueberry land. Many people of a certain age in Maine have raked blueberries for a summer job. Whether it was supplementing the family income, for buying badly needed school clothes or getting just enough money to go to the fair, the blueberry industry has supported countless Maine families. Starting in late July, the blueberry season stretches through the month of August. Over 44,000 acres of blueberry land are farmed annually in Maine contributing millions of dollars to the local economy.

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Wild blueberries against the ledge rock.

Although they are referred to as wild, if left unattended, these precious plants would probably be engulfed by small trees only to turn into a forest. Care must be taken to ensure a decent harvest. Burning or mowing the blueberry fields is a great way to keep unwanted weeds from growing in. Berries have a two year cycle. Pruned fields will not produce until the following year. Some farms have half of their land in production each year. In our area, spraying blueberries for blueberry maggots is still common but more farms have been going organic in recent years. Hand raking has also becoming rare. Blueberry raking used to be a great job for teens but a lot of growers have gone to mechanical raking for efficiency. Many a young person has stood by a blueberry winnowing machine for hours picking out unacceptable berries, leaves and stems.

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Maine wild blueberries!

Wild blueberries have long been a Maine food source but they were not picked commercially until the 1840’s. The low-bush variety (vaccinium augustifolium) grows well in Maine’s naturally acidic soil. They can survive harsh winter conditions and offer year round beauty. From their white blossoms in late spring to their flaming red foliage in fall, blueberry fields are a feast for the eyes as well. High-bush berries also grow throughout Maine and abroad but prefer marshy, wet areas. The fruit can be slightly bigger and the flavor is comparable.

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Sweet, delicious berries.

Benefits From Blueberries 

It’s no secret that blueberries are are excellent for your health. They often show up in the category of ‘super food’ and are rich in antioxidants. According to Wild Blueberries, wild berries have 2x the antioxidant power of ordinary cultivated berries. So, pour on the blueberries when you get the chance!

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Low-bush berries.

Uses for Blueberries 

It probably goes without saying that there are endless uses for blueberries and they are only limited to the imagination. Blueberries can be sprinkled on pancakes, mixed into waffles or added to buttery muffins. Blueberry pies, crisps and rich coffee cakes are a huge hit around here. Dried blueberries can be put into granola or trail mix. Frozen blueberries give summer flavor to oatmeal, smoothies and yogurt during the winter. Blueberries can even be used in savory applications such as sauces and dressings. Personally, I think eating them on cereal or by the handful is my favorite. The flavor of wild blueberries far surpasses that of commercial berries in most Mainer’s opinions!

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Blueberry muffins!

If you have wild blueberries in your area, try to get some while you can! You’ll see how sweet they really are. The berries are very easy to freeze. Just place them in freezer bags, seal and lay flat in your freezer. Some prefer to freeze them on cookie sheets in a single layer to prevent clumping. If you are like Sal’s mother from the story, you might feel like canning them or making a few batches of jam. Whichever way you use them, take advantage of the season while it lasts! Many farms are taking orders for 10 lbs. or more. Some will even ship to your door. It’s hard to find a place to pick these days because most of the blueberry land is for commercial use. If you haven’t experienced wild blueberries yet, get out and get some while they last.

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Fresh blueberries!

All of the gardens here have been suffering from the lack of rain. At the same time, the beans are wanting to be picked every other day and the cherry tomatoes are beginning to get their color. I hope that you get to experience wild blueberries in your area. They really are a highlight of the summer season here. So if you will excuse me, I think I need to go make some pie now!

Hilary|Everlongardener

 

Fabulous Fiddleheads

Every year, spring is filled with much anticipation for the fabulous fiddlehead!  Never heard of a fiddlehead?  They are the curled new fronds that emerge from the Ostrich fern, or Matteuccia struthiopteris.  The young growth can be eaten and is quite a local delicacy!  They are a glossy green with a papery brown, scaly covering. The flavor is fresh, earthy and maybe a bit like asparagus but really these little spirals have a flavor all of their own.

Spring soul food, fiddleheads!
Spring soul food, fiddleheads!

Fiddleheads are not only delicious, they are very good for you.  They provide a good source of fiber, Vitamins C and A, and Omega fatty acids.  Not too shabby!

Where To Find Fiddleheads?

Where do they grow?  Fiddleheads thrive on river and stream banks.  You may be able to identify the Ostrich fern in summer and return the following spring to harvest the tender new growth.  Fiddleheads range from Alaska to the Northeast, British Colombia, northern and southern parts of Canada.  They can also be found near the Great Lakes and Southern Appalachians.

A full grown Ostrich fern.
A full grown Ostrich fern.

Finding fiddleheads can be a bit tricky.  First, make sure they are indeed fiddlehead ferns.  I actually don’t have a place to go harvest them.  In many parts of Maine they are plentiful, but here on the coast fiddlehead patches are a closely guarded secret.  I can show you my fiddlehead patch but… you get the picture!  I buy mine at a local health food store or farm stand.  The best deals are found roadside.  Locals make a quick spring income on their harvest.  When I was growing up, a family friend used to bring them over by the five gallon bucket.  Paying for them seems silly but they are only here for a very short time.

Fiddlehead ferns or Ostrich ferns.
Fiddlehead ferns or Ostrich ferns.

As usual, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension has some substantial information on identifying fiddlehead ferns properly.  Fiddlehead biology and proper harvest are discussed in Bulletin # 2540, Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads.  You can find more than you ever wanted to know in Bulletin #4198, Facts on Fiddleheads including tons of fiddlehead recipes.

It is usually necessary to clean freshly harvested fiddleheads.  A good soaking with several water changes will do the trick.  Pick off the papery covering as you go.

Getting ready to steam some fiddleheads.
Getting ready to steam some fiddleheads.

Cooking Methods

When I worked as a waitress, the diner where I worked served fiddleheads in many ways.  Quiche, cream of fiddlehead soup, as a side dish and the ever popular, deep fried and served with Ranch dressing!  Yes, this was the much sought after appetizer!  I can still taste them.

At our house, we usually steam them.  Some people saute  or boil them and serve with butter or vinegar.  I was surprised to find that the previously mentioned articles said that no one should ever eat raw fiddlehead ferns.  Apparently they have been the source of some food born illnesses.

Getting ready to make fiddlehead pesto.
Getting ready to make fiddlehead pesto.

Last week, I picked some garlic chives from the garden and put together a pesto.  I added the fiddleheads, chives, parmesan cheese and olive oil to my mini food processor.  I guess after finding out about the raw fiddlehead issue, I would briefly steam them next time.  The result was a creamy, comforting pasta topping!  A definite keeper!

Finished product. Fiddlehead and garlic chive pesto!
Finished product. Fiddlehead and garlic chive pesto!

To preserve all of that fiddlehead goodness, some people love pickling them.  Blanching and freezing are also good options.

If you are interested in more information on foraging for wild food, check out Enjoying and Preserving Dandelion Greens.  I hope you get to try fiddleheads before the season is over.  Thanks for giving this article a read!  Feel free to subscribe in sidebar!

Hilary|Everlongardener