At a fraction of the size of their highbush cousins, wild blueberries are completely different from cultivated varieties.
Photographed by John Lane of Evening Tide Photography
Lobsters aside, there is arguably no more Maine-y food than the wild blueberry. Vaccinium angustifolium emerged in the state’s rocky soils millennia before humans roamed the earth, and farmers have been harvesting the indigenous berries for hundreds of years. The barrens — first green, then purply blue, then crimson — literally color the landscape of Down East Maine and have sustained an agrarian way of life there for generations.
Among locals, wild blueberries are a rite of summer, anticipated as eagerly as the first sound of peepers in spring. Mainers clamor for the tiny berries when they’re available in late July and August and keep the kitchen stocked with frozen bags to enjoy year-round. And with good reason. At a fraction of the size of their highbush cousins, with a deep-purply hue, lowbush wild blueberries look and taste completely different from cultivated varieties, and they’re packed with benefits that other berries lack.
“They have this tartness and just pop with intense flavor,” says Stacy Begin, owner of Two Fat Cats Bakery of Portland and South Portland, who uses the berries in pies, muffins, buckles, and other recipes. “They’re teeny but so powerful.”
Here are some of the other qualities that set wild blueberries apart:
THEY CREATE WIDE-OPEN SPACES.Maine’s 38,000 acres of active wild blueberry barrens provide valuable habitat for more than 100 species of native bees, along with beavers, black bears, upland sandpipers, and other animals.
THEY’RE RESILIENT. Wild blueberries thrive in Maine’s rocky, dry, sandy barrens and can withstand the region’s harsh winters, so they require less intense management than highbush berries to get from the barrens to the breakfast table.
THEY’RE SMALL BUT MIGHTY. Despite their smaller size, laboratory studies show that pound for pound, wild blueberries have up to two times the antioxidant activity compared to ordinary blueberries.
FIBER DOES THE BODY GOOD. Wild blueberries have approximately 50 percent more fiber than highbush varieties, and they rank low on the glycemic index.
THEY’RE HOME GROWN. Wild blueberries only grow in abundance in a small corner of the world, which is Maine and eastern Canada.
THEY WERE HERE FIRST.Wild blueberries have been growing in Maine since the glaciers receded 10,000 years ago.
THEY KEEP THE ECONOMY HUMMING.Maine’s wild blueberry industry, which includes 485 growers, generates an estimated $250 million in economic impact for the state each year.
THEY’VE GOT STAYING POWER. While wild blueberries can only be harvested annually in late July and August, they can be found year-round in the frozen section of your local grocery store. They are individually quick frozen within 24 hours of harvesting to lock in their flavor and nutrition.