“One berry, two berry, pick me a blueberry…” so begins one of my daughter’s favorite books, “Jamberry” by Bruce Degen. Picking blueberries is one of those childhood activities that are so iconic that we remember doing them even if we never have.
Blueberries are one of the few fruits indigenous to the United States, and were enjoyed by Native Americans before Europeans arrived in America. Since we are in the midst of the blueberry harvest season, it seems as good a time as any to address the hotly contested debate: high or low?
You see, there are two basic types of blueberries, highbush and lowbush. According The US
Highbush Blueberry Council, North America produced more than 400 tons of highbush blueberries in 2008. The majority are grown in Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, New Jersey and Michigan, though they can be found in 38 states. Lowbush blueberries accounted for just 75 million pounds, but not due to a lack of popularity.
All blueberries were of the wild lowbush variety until they met Elizabeth Coleman White. Born in 1871, White was the daughter of prosperous cranberry farmers in New Lisbon, NJ. She noticed the wild blueberries that grew between the family's cranberry bogs and realized that since they began to ripen in July, they might complement the cranberry harvest in September and produce additional income. But at the time blueberries were not cultivated and were difficult to harvest.
White lacked a scientific background, but she wanted to create a cultivated blueberry, something considered impossible at the time. Then, in 1911 she read about the work of botanist Frederick V. Colville and persuaded her family to underwrite Colville’s research in blueberry cultivation. Together they developed hybridized highbush plants that could grow higher and produce a larger berry than the lowbushes. By 1916 they created the nation’s first commercial crop of blueberries.
Highbush berries are generally cultivated from late June to the end of July, depending on the season, while lowbush berries come primarily from Maine and are harvested during an intense two-week period in August.
According to Patricia Contour, Director of Programs for The Wild Blueberry Commission, highbush berries are bred for size while lowbush berries, which remain wild today, are generally smaller, but are often more flavorful. “Our feeling is that they have a better taste,” Contour says. “The coastal region of Maine is a pretty pristine environment. Plus there’s a lot of genetic diversity in wild berries and because of that there isn’t a standardized flavor. They’re all good.”
Kerry Heffernan, blueberry aficionado and executive Chef of Southgate in New York City likes to work with foods in season at their peak of flavor. He serves a roasted blueberry compote with crème fraiche cheesecake and tarragon ice cream, and for a savory dish, prepares foie gras with blueberries. At home, Heffernan loves them in pancakes “for which blueberries with their perfectly sealed container and boiling point are uniquely suited,” he thinks.
But does he prefer cultivated highbush or wild lowbush?
“My experience is that given the right conditions and farmer, both can be wondrous,” he says.
Highbush blueberries are ready earlier, more plentiful, bigger and plumper than lowbush, but at times they can lack flavor. That’s par for the course for serious agri-business foods, according to Heffernan. “That said I have eaten many," he says, "and cooked with more New Jersey and their close cousin Michigan blueberries than any other simply because of supply and price and they’ve been fantastic. The Maine and the Massachusetts variety that I know, are closer to huckleberries in their concentration of flavor. They’re more austere and difficult to get to know as they are far more rare.”
If both were at their best Heffernan would choose Maine, “because of their intensity of fruit flavors and delicate aroma but they’re challenging to harvest and less hospitable about where they grow.”
“In the earliest part of my career,” he recounts, “my mother got remarried in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and I as chef wanted to everything local. I recall sending my brothers and sister out to gather the surf clams for chowder at low tide by finding them with their toes. The water was at nearly chin level. They said that seemed easy compared to gathering enough wild blueberries for just one pie as they were strewn across the hillside, interspersed with pickers and Poison Ivy. But it was an awfully good pie.”
Either way, when he buys them at the store today he has Ms. White to thank. She also introduced the use of cellophane to package blueberries that led to the clear plastic containers they’re shipped in today.