Foraging in Minnesota: Blueberries

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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. 

Vaccinium, spp. 

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. 

Minnesota blueberry foraging

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 blue powdery 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 powdery coating on the berries at all, and they appear nearly black when fully ripe (and feel downright hot to the touch in the 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. 

The Harvest

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, the berries are 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. 

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. 

Blueberry muffins, pie

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.

Making the most of the foraging harvest

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Well, the foraging season is behind us now and it’s safe to say this one was far from overwhelming. Each is different, of course, and not every fruit, nut, or fungus is going to give generous harvests in any one year, but this one seemed more universally disappointing. Most folks would be quick to blame the drought that defined the summer, myself included. 

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Foraging in Minnesota: Wild Grapes

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I never paid much attention to wild grapes until a couple years ago. Growing up in the Minnesota River valley, we often encountered beefy grape vines in the woods that disappeared into the tops of the tallest treees. They were sturdy enough to swing on if you could break them at the bottom. The fruit I tasted on occasion wasn’t very good compared to the green and red grapes from the store, so I wrote them off in my youth. For decades, I didn’t know what I was missing. 

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Do Something New: River Smallmouth Float Trip

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I recently took a day trip on the Mississippi to do some fishing. It’s something I hadn’t done before, but had considered trying on the many fishable rivers in the area. It’s good I did, because it will probably stand as one of the highlights of the entire summer. To tell the truth, the plan was so simple it couldn’t fail: just me, the river, and any smallmouth bass that were in the mood for a tussle. 

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BWCA Entry Point 25: Winter Camping and Fishing

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For years I have dreamed of camping and ice fishing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Biting cold and slush-laden lake tops have kept me home the last two winters. That was fine; I’m not one to press my luck. But the warmer-than-average weather we’ve enjoyed lately had me itching to get at it.

Entry Point 25, with walleyes in Newfound Lake and brook trout in Found Lake, was the perfect setting for my introduction into winter adventuring. Little did I know, however, that introduction would come with a sobering peek into my own psyche. Continue reading “BWCA Entry Point 25: Winter Camping and Fishing”

The Year of Untouchable Bucks

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Hanging some antlers on the wall is a dream that sparkles in every deer hunter’s eye. Unsurprisingly, big bucks dominate deer hunting marketing and media. I will admit I’m not immune to the images and hype.

But at this time in my life, my main priorities each deer season are observing tradition, pursuing new experiences, and doing all I can to secure meat for my family. My 2020 deer hunt embodied those three as much or more than any other, spread across two weeks and three distinct settings. Continue reading “The Year of Untouchable Bucks”

Do Something New: Minnesota State Park Deer Hunt

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It all started about two years ago. My deer season had almost passed without a single deer sighting. I’d spent two rainy days in a deer stand on private property, then one especially frigid day hoofing it on state forest land. If it weren’t for the good fortune of my brother and dad, we’d have been short on meat for the year.

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Trip Report: Bottomland Paddling and Sanborn Canoe

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After my incredible deer hunt in the Mississippi bottomlands of southeast Minnesota last season, I’ve been hot to find similar territory for future excursions. And since the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge contains almost limitless opportunities for somebody with more ambition than sense, it was an obvious place to start.

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