July is National Blueberry Month! If food is our medicine, which indeed it is, then no other native fruit packs as much nutrition into a smaller package than the beautiful blueberry. Indigenous to North America they were 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 of how Great Spirit sent these medicine fruits to ease the children’s hunger during times of famine. The versatility of this food, its ability to be preserved and its reputation as a valuable medicine, all serve to confirm these earlier stories and legends. Blueberries were dried in the sun and then added to soups, stews and meat dishes, pounded and added to pemmican as a preservative 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 the anthocyanins, which are contributors 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 that 13,000 years ago. Seeds thousands of years old have been found at several archeological digs in Ontario, Canada. Blueberries grow wild all over the world and have many different names with the genus Vaccinium consisting of more than 450 species of plants. One of my wild favorites is the deer or buckberry (V. stamineum), not only because I am interested in all things related to Deer, but also because it is fun to discover these dark edible berries growing trail side while hiking through the Southern Appalachians in late summer.
Most of the plump, juicy and sweet blueberries you find 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 making for a longer harvest. You can now buy fresh blueberries all year round with North American blueberries 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, and Michigan is the leading producer of highbush blueberries. Highbush blueberries require milder growing conditions and tend to be irrigated. 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 U.S. imports more blueberries than it exports, mostly from Chile (cultivated) and Canada (wild.)
Leaves, roots and berries all 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 has been used to treat diarrhea and other bowel complaints. Native American women have used a decoction of the root to ease childbirth during labor. The anti-oxidant 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 in order to obtain the maximum health benefits.
The culinary uses for blueberries both fresh and frozen 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. They were added to cakes and breads and simmered into a paste that could be kept for up to 2 years. Early Americans made them into jams, jellies and syrups, and in many parts of the South jars of blueberry preserve could be used as a form of barter-currency.
As good as gold and equally rich with culinary pleasure, blueberries 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 (and my birthday!) I invite you to enjoy Grandma Thea’s Blueberry Pie. It comes out perfect every time. To your health…
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. half way through. Continue whipping until soft peaks form.