July is National Blueberry Month! If food is our medicine, and indeed it is, then no other native fruit packs as much nutrition into a smaller package than the beautiful blueberry. Indigenous to North America and called “ blue star berries” by the Native Americans because the blossom at the end of each berry forms a perfect five-pointed star. Tribal elders told the story how Great Spirit sent these medicinal fruits to ease the children’s hunger during times of famine. Confirming these stories and legends is the blueberry’s versatility as a food, the ability to be preserved, and its reputation as a valuable medicine. Blueberries, dried in the sun, were added to soups, stews, and meat dishes. They were pounded and added as a preservative to pemmican, and given to the Europeans when they first arrived to help them survive through the winter.
Bears love blueberries, but they are equally important to people as they are to wildlife. Turkey, quail, grouse, chipmunks, rabbits, foxes, squirrels, raccoons, songbirds, and of course, deer all eat the high-quality fruits of the blueberry. They may be small in size, but they are large in nutritional value. Blueberries should be a part of any longevity plan. They keep our hearts healthy and bones strong. Packed with Vitamin C they are leaders in antioxidant activity and keep us young by neutralizing free radicals. The substances that give the fruit its blue color are phenols, specifically anthocyanins, which contribute to its antioxidant activity. Blueberries are high in fiber and supply manganese, an essential mineral that plays a role in converting proteins, carbohydrates, and fats in food into energy.
Used as food, medicine, and plant dye, botanists estimate that blueberries burst on the scene more than 13,000 years ago. Seeds thousands of years old have been found at several archeological digs in Ontario, Canada. Blueberries grow wild around the world and have many different names. The genus Vaccinium has more than 450 species of plants. The wild buckberry (V. stamineum) is a favorite of deer, and is also one of my favorites. It is fun to discover these dark edible berries growing trailside while hiking through the Southern Appalachians in late summer.
Most of the plump, juicy, and sweet blueberries in the supermarket today are highbush blueberries cultivated in the early 20th century by Dr. Frederick V. Coville and Elizabeth White. Highbush blueberries grow in clusters and don’t ripen all at once prolonging their harvest. You can now buy fresh blueberries all year round. North American blueberries are available April through October, and South American blueberries from November through March.
The lowbush species of blueberry is a wild crop commonly referred to as ‘wild blueberry’ and is one of four fruit crops native to North America. Maine is the leading producer of lowbush blueberries. Michigan leads the production of highbush blueberries. Highbush blueberries require irrigation and milder growing conditions. Currently blueberry farms in the United States boast a total yearly production of 600 million pounds, and sales of over 1.4 million and growing. The United States imports more blueberries than it exports, mostly from Chile (cultivated) and Canada (wild.)
Leaves, roots, and berries have medicinal value, and the fruits have been shown to improve eyesight and protect against ulcers. They are anti-inflammatory, and the juice is useful in urinary tract infections. The root is diuretic, astringent, and antispasmodic, and a decoction of the root treats diarrhea and other bowel complaints. Native American women have used a decoction of the root to ease childbirth during labor. The antioxidant activity of blueberries reduces heart disease risk, strengthens collagen, regulates blood sugar, and improves night vision. Blueberries contain bioactive compounds that have anti-cancer properties and are best when eaten whole and fresh to obtain maximum health benefits.
Both fresh and frozen, the culinary uses for blueberries are practically endless. Native American recipes passed down for generations combined these fruits with sweet corn, fish, fowl, and game, including moose fat or deer tallow. Blueberries simmered into a paste could be preserved for up to two years and then added to cakes and bread. Early Americans made them into jams, jellies, and syrups. In many parts of the South, jars of preserve were a form of barter currency.
Blueberries, as good as gold and equally rich with culinary pleasure, are a sustainable organic crop with deep roots in North American history and tall benefits for human health. Blueberry Festivals are a wonderful way to sample and celebrate the healthy benefits and super flavor of blueberries and are held all over the country from May through August. In celebration of National Blueberry Month, I invite you to enjoy Grandma Thea’s Blueberry Pie. It comes out perfect every time. May you enjoy the sweetness of life…
Grandma Thea’s Blueberry Pie
- 2 spelt frozen pie crusts (freezer section your health food store)
- 4 cups of fresh blueberries
- ¼ cup minute tapioca
- 1 cup organic sugar
- 1 Tbsp. lemon juice
- 1 tsp. grated lemon peel
- ¼ tsp. free trade cinnamon
- 1/8 tsp. cardamom
- 1 Tbsp. organic salted butter
- ½ pint organic whipping cream
- 1 Tbsp. sugar
- 1 tsp. vanilla
Mix fruit, tapioca, sugar, lemon, and spice in a bowl and let stand 15 minutes. Meanwhile, take pie crusts out of the freezer and let defrost for ten minutes. Fill with fruit mixture. Dot with butter. Cover with top crust and slit sides and top. Bake in a preheated oven at 400º for 50 minutes. Cool completely and serve with organic whipped cream.
Whipped Cream Chill mixing bowl and beaters. Whip on high speed adding 1 Tbsp. sugar and 1 tsp. vanilla approx. halfway through. Continue whipping until soft peaks form.