Most Minnesota foragers—whether berry seekers or not—are familiar with blueberries. Our native blueberries are both abundant and widespread, popping up in varied habitats. While not every year is a good year, pickers of all ages can usually enjoy decent harvests of these flavorful, nutrient-packed treasures more often than not.
As with our native plums, many or even most people don’t realize we have two species of blueberries. If you haven’t noticed, don’t feel bad about it. They seem to prefer similar habitats and occupy similar ranges in Minnesota. And as for the taste, well, let’s just say you’d have to be a sommelier to claim credibly you can tell them apart. The rest of us really don’t care when we’re eating our muffins or cobbler or whatever.
Blueberries are closely related to many other desirable fruits, including huckleberry, cranberry, lingonberry, and bilberry. Unlike swamp-loving members of the Vaccinium genus like cranberries and some bilberries, however, blueberry bushes have a love for upland sites. The drier the better, and poor soils don’t bother them. In fact, the best picking places I know are on pure, loose sand.
Vaccinium angustifolium, called lowbush blueberry (at left in photo; click to enlarge), is probably what most of us picture in a blueberry. Branches with bright limey foliage, and berries with a pale powder-blue film that rubs off when we handle them. While fruit sizes between the two species are similar, the berries big enough to make your eyes bug out always seem to be from V. angustifolium.
Vaccinium myrtilloides, called velvetleaf or Canadian blueberry (at right in photo), may appear similar to its brother. In my experience, its leaves have a duller, darker hue than angustifolium. Also, the appearance of darker berries is helpful in distinguishing the two. On that topic, the Minnesota Wildflowers website says, “…occasionally the coating is absent making the berries a dark bluish black.”
Where I like to pick each year, myrtilloides is almost as abundant as angustifolium; perhaps a ratio of 40/60. Myrtilloides there seem not to have a coating on the berries at all, and they appear nearly black when ripe (and downright hot to the touch in full sun).
While it is always great to make an accurate identification, I must say they sound identical when they hit the bottom of a plastic bucket.
Wild Blueberry Picking
I’ve eaten blueberries in lots of parts of Minnesota, and one important thing I’ve found is that they love the sun. They may form a lush carpet under a stand of red or white pines, giving up a few berries here and there. But where that carpet meets an opening or even a road or trail, the break in the canopy usually translates into a greater density of berries.
My favorite place to pick is in east central Minnesota, on a sandy site that appears to have been logged almost 10 years ago. It was planted into red and jack pines, which are now getting taller than me. The blueberry bushes are thick there in places. Because they enjoy nearly full sun, berry abundance is off the charts. You can sit in one place and pick cups upon cups. This year, my wife and kids and I picked almost five pounds in our brief visit.
No, I will not tell you where this is. However, any site south of Canada that fits this description will likely yield similar results.
Cooking and Eating
Wondering what to do with your berries? Here are some things we routinely do with ours:
–Blueberries and granola in plain yogurt sweetened with honey. Great for the first week or so after picking. Just snatch some out of the fridge for a quick breakfast.
–Mixed berry pies and jams. Blueberries are tasty enough by themselves, but I’ve come to believe they are best when combined with others like blackberries, raspberries, and juneberries. We’ve been told more than once that our mixed berry jams are “…the best homemade jam I’ve ever had.”
–Blueberry muffins. We’ve found it convenient to wash and freeze several small bags with one cup of berries in each. Just find a recipe that calls for 1 cup of blueberries, of which there are many on the web, and have at it. (1 cup is also the perfect amount for a batch of blueberry pancakes, by the way).
I’d love to hear what you do with your blueberries. Leave a comment below!
If you’re interested in learning about more foraged foods, please visit the What to Forage page.