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U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council

History of Blueberries

The blueberry may be small, but the history of blueberries is quite vast. Botanists estimate that blueberries burst onto the scene more than 13,000 years ago!

The little blue fruit that our country has grown to know and love is indigenous to North America and has deep roots in our country’s history. When Europeans arrived on the continent, Native Americans were already enjoying blueberries year-round. They dried blueberries in the sun and added them whole to soups, stews and meat, and even crushed them into a powder to use on meat as a preservative.

The Native Americans were just as energized by blueberries as people are today, and developed folklore around the dynamic little blue fruit. They called blueberries “star berries” because the blossom end of each berry – the calyx – forms a perfect five-pointed star. Tribal elders recounted how the Great Spirit sent “star berries” to ease the children’s hunger during a famine. And according to legend, Native Americans gave blueberries to the pilgrims to help them make it through their first winter.

Blueberries (and their leaves and roots) were used for medicinal purposes, and Native Americans developed one of the first blueberry baked goods, which they called Sautauthig (pronounced sawi-taw-teeg). This simple pudding made with blueberries, cracked corn (or samp) and water was a Native American favorite. Sautauthig became popular among the settlers too; they added milk, butter and sugar to the recipe, and many historians believe it was part of the first Thanksgiving feast.

Across the Atlantic, Europeans turned to close cousins of blueberries – called bilberries – for a variety of medicinal practices. They brewed bilberry roots into a tea to help women relax during childbirth, used bilberry syrup to treat coughs and associated the berries with good eyesight.

The Cultivated Highbush Blueberry: A New Star in the Fruit Business

We can buy and enjoy blueberries today thanks to the efforts of two enthusiastic and enterprising individuals in the early 1900s. At the time, people didn’t think blueberries could be domesticated, but Elizabeth White, the daughter of a New Jersey farmer, was determined to cultivate them. She teamed up with Dr. Frederick Coville, a USDA botanist, to identify wild blueberry plants with the most desirable properties, crossbreed the bushes and create vibrant new blueberry varieties. Colville and White produced the first commercial crop of blueberries out of Whitesbog, New Jersey in 1916.

Ongoing research by plant breeders has yielded many juicy, sweet and easy-to-pick blueberry plants that pop up in various climates today. Visit www.whitesbog.org to learn more about early efforts to cultivate blueberries.

Sources for the History of Blueberries:

U.S. Geological Survey (May 2011)
Whitesbog.org

Agricultural Resource Magazine, May-June 2011