The blueberry may be small, but it’s no youngster. Botanists estimate blueberries burst onto the scene more than 13,000 years ago!
Blueberries are indigenous to North America and have deep roots in our country’s history. When Europeans arrived on the continent, the Native Americans were already enjoying blueberries year-round. They dried blueberries in the sun and added them whole to soups, stews and meat, or crushed them into a powder rubbed into meat as a preservative. According to legend, Native Americans gave blueberries to the pilgrims to help them make it through their first winter.
The Native Americans were just as energized by blueberries as people are today, and developed folklore around the dynamic little blue fruit. Tribal elders recounted how the Great Spirit sent “star berries” to ease the children’s hunger during a famine. They called blueberries “star berries” because the blossom end of each berry – the calyx – forms a perfect five-pointed star.
The Native Americans used blueberries (and their leaves and roots) for medicinal purposes, and 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. Sautautig 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, the 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. It’s just like blueberries to be at the center of so much attention…
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 the highbush blueberry. She teamed up with Dr. Frederick Coville 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 on the heels of Coville and White’s initial work has yielded many juicy, sweet and easy-to-pick blueberry plants that happily pop up in various climates today. Visit www.whitesbog.org to learn more about early efforts to cultivate blueberries.