Photograph by John Greim, LightRocket/Getty
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Farmer Elizabeth White, whose family owned land in the Pine Barrens in southeastern New Jersey, is credited with helping domesticate the wild blueberry.

Photograph by John Greim, LightRocket/Getty
The Plate

From Wild to Tame, the Blueberry Business Is Booming

The wild blueberry once helped sustain Native Americans, but cultivated varieties ship better. Either way, they are a nutrition powerhouse.

Since 1974, July has been officially designated National Blueberry Month. And of all the food-themed months in the federal canon, this must be one of the healthiest. Blueberries, after all, are now dubbed a superfood, due to their nutritional benefits and high concentration of antioxidant flavonoids. These last may reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer, and recent research suggests that they may also help stave off the onset of the memory loss and cognitive deterioration associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Surveys show that we’re eating more and more of them: National blueberry consumption has nearly doubled since 2008.

But which blueberries are the best? Wild or domesticated? Does it make a difference? The answer, like most when it comes to food, is "it depends."

Blueberries, along with cranberries and Concord grapes, are native to North America. Native American tribes used them fresh, dried, and or combined with fat and shredded jerky to make pemmican. Perhaps the earliest mention of blueberries by a European comes from Samuel de Champlain, founder of Quebec, in 1615, who mentioned watching Algonquin women drying “blues,” which they used in cornmeal bread. He referred to blueberries as “manna for the winter.” Useful as they were, however, nobody actually grew them on purpose. Blueberries, for most of their long history, have been wild.

Blueberries, as cultivated fruits go, are essentially brand-new. The fat, yummy varieties that we enjoy today were only developed in the 20th century, under the auspices of Elizabeth White, oldest of the four daughters of a cranberry grower whose land lay in the Pine Barrens, a million-acre stretch of land in southeastern New Jersey. Elizabeth was bright, interested in agriculture and native plants, and physically impressive—over six feet tall and given to wearing Whistler’s Mother-ish long black dresses, according to John McPhee’s The Pine Barrens. In 1911, she happened upon a U.S. Department of Agriculture publication on possibilities for domesticating wild blueberries by botanist Frederick Coville. Realizing that the Pine Barrens, rich in wild blueberry bushes, was ideal for such a project, White contacted Coville and proposed a collaboration, offering space for experimental blueberry cultivation on her family’s farm, and hiring locals to track down wild bushes that bore notably big berries.

Of the first 120 of these wild finds, McPhee writes, White and Coville chucked 118. From the remaining two, they made 35,000 hybrid cuttings; of which they eventually tossed all but four. These final four, the ne plus ultra of blueberries, are the ancestors of the many domestic varieties enjoyed by blueberry fans today. The cultivated blueberry, understandably, is now New Jersey’s official state fruit.

Modern cultivated blueberries are Northern highbush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum), borne on bushes that ordinarily reach six to twelve feet in height. Their opposite, the lowbush or wild blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), is tough, cold-hardy, and short, usually no more than a scrubby two feet tall. The plants spread via underground stems or rhizomes, such that a single blueberry plant—rather than a tidy compact bush—consists of a clone that covers 250 square feet or more. In Robert McCloskey’s children’s classic Blueberries for Sal, Sal, her mother, and a couple of bears visit the same spreading blueberry patch in search of lowbush wild blueberries.

Maine is the world’s largest producer of wild blueberries, harvesting over 90 millions pounds a year. (Maine’s official state berry is the wild blueberry.) Despite the fact that wild blueberries are tiny—as much as four times smaller than their marble-sized cultivated cousins—some claim that they’re sweeter and more flavorful. They’re also arguably healthier. A USDA ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) evaluation found that wild blueberries have over twice the antioxidant content of cultivated blueberries.

Another fact in favor of the wild berries is that they’re wild. Some research indicates that wild just might be the up-and-coming food trend, as consumers demand more natural, unprocessed foods. A recent poll of health-concious consumers, for example, found that 72 percent believed that wild foods were healthier and tasted better than their cultivated counterparts—a thumbs-up for wild rice, wild salmon, and wild blueberries.

On the other hand, fresh wild blueberries don’t ship well. The bulk of Maine’s berries are sold frozen or canned, or are used in prepared foods. (The blueberries in your packaged blueberry muffin mix are most likely Maine wild blueberries.) Fresh wild berries are, for the most part, a local treat.

So if you live near a wild blueberry patch, you might want to get out there with your berry bucket.

But if you don’t, not to worry: cultivated berries are still a great second-best.

In fact, some taste tests say that they’re even better as a topping for vanilla ice cream.