I have a memory of that sight, of a breezy, sunny August day in Baxter State Park more than twenty years ago. It was a day hike up North Traveler Trail for a small group heading to the summit, about six or seven of us, two families who had come to Lower South Branch Pond to camp, with their teenage children and me. What joy there was in being high up out there in the profusion of berries, with the sudden sight of them, seduced by the taste and abandoning all desire to reach the top of the mountain. What desperation, too, because we didn’t have any way to collect them. “Use your hat! Drink all your water! Drink it all down and fill your bottle with berries!” a serious one in the party called out, as though our lives depended on it, and we complied, searching our backpacks and jackets hurriedly for any container we could find.
We must have been there an hour in the open under blue sky, volcanic bedrock of the great sprawling mountain beneath us, relieved of ambition, coming into separate worlds only feet apart, some sitting, others kneeling to pick, one standing gazing far off, reminding us that bears are drawn to blueberries, too. There wasn’t a bear that day, but I like to imagine we shared the wild berries with one all the same. Surely a bear had come that way earlier and gone, lapping up the bounty as she went with her muzzle grazing a few of the ripest ones that we were now gathering.
How much farther we walked the stony, meandering path is lost to me all these years later, but I believe we returned to the base the way we had come, bending into the wind, stepping along over talus and columns of rock and into the trees with our prize berries. That night around the campfire, a blueberry crisp was miraculously served up, three inches deep, with a royal sheen of purple and indigo, steaming and encrusted, and gone in no time at all.
The berries we saw on North Traveler in Maine may have been the common lowbush species V. angustifolium with its clusters of fruit and tapered, fine-toothed leaves. It is found in the eastern United States to Virginia and the Great Lakes region and also in Canada. They could also have been the slightly taller, velvet-leaved V. myrtilloides that has a range that overlaps. Both types are common in Baxter Park and are known to hybridize in places where they occur together. Hybridization over the centuries is an outstanding reason for the complex, special flavor of blueberries in the wild. It can also make plant identification challenging at times!
There are many species of blueberries, from the low-growing ones to the highbush variety. All are classified within the heath family (Ericaceae), along with mountain laurel, rhododendron, Indian pipe, azalea and trailing arbutus. Within the heath family, lowbush and highbush blueberries are further grouped together within the genus Vaccinium, along with their close relatives the cranberries. Blueberries require acidic soil. They are found in most of the US with the exception of parts of the Midwest due to the alkaline soil and other factors. Certain species are native to other places in the world as well, or have been introduced successfully for cultivation. In March I had ripe blueberries from Chile, available at my market in the Hudson Valley of New York.
Here at home there are a few patches of lowbush native to the eastern US right outside my door, the hillside blueberry (V. pallidum) with thin, woody stems and smooth, unserrated leaves. I have watched a chipmunk stand on back legs to pull down a branch to eat those berries one by one, then race up a nearby oak tree one hundred feet up. Early in the morning of a winter day I have exchanged looks with a young deer standing in that same blueberry patch, browsing the tips, every one of them, for the little bit of nourishment in the dormant buds.
Just west of my town, at the base of Stissing Mountain, the highbush variety grows in wet areas at Thompson Pond, a glacial kettle bog-pond protected by the Nature Conservancy and estimated to be 15,000 years old. You can walk into the preserve on a woods path to where the berries are at the far end. From there a narrow boardwalk crosses the bog through a green glade of ferns, tussock sedge and slender, branching blueberry that forms a bower overhead. When I go there it always seems to be the wrong season for berrying, but what a magical place nonetheless. The shrubs are the highbush or swamp blueberry, V. corymbosum, named for the corymbs or flat-topped clusters of blossoms. The species typically grows six to twelve feet high in swamps, clearings and woodlands and is also native to the area.
Friends of mine make a point of combining a hike with picking blueberries. They rally one another in August, remind themselves to pack a bucket along with some lunch and head to a place in Minnewaska State Park Preserve in New York. Minnewaska is steeped in history from the era when pickers supplied New York City and the great Catskill resort hotels with blueberries. There in the Shawangunks where highbush and lowbush flourish, my friends spend the day outdoors hiking the loop trails and blueberrying along the way. It’s hard to say which is greater, going in search of the “fragmentary blue” described in a poem of Robert Frost’s by that name, or coming upon it unprepared.
Last summer hiking on Mount Washington in New Hampshire with a few other women, I saw blueberries I had never seen before. We were taking the Glen Boulder Trail to the Davis Trail across to Boott Spur, a route that was steep, exposed and long. In certain sections we really had to scramble to get up. It was an ideal day with clear skies, though, and once out of the trees we saw blueberries everywhere. I don’t know that we saw the northern or alpine blueberry (V. boreale), a compact, narrow-leaved plant that hugs the ground above the treeline along with lichen, diapensia and mountain cranberry. It may have been the common lowland species instead (V. angustifolium), surviving in protected spots high on the mountain. We did see the alpine bilberry or blueberry (V. uliginosum), so similar to the common lowbush in every way, same fruit, same star-like calyx or crown, same hue, but the distinctive leaves caught my attention. They were small and nearly round, very unlike the tapered ones of V. angustifolium, the species I was familiar with. The alpine bilberry can tolerate soil high in metals, so it is edible depending on where it grows. Its range includes areas of Europe, Asia and North America, and for stretches of our hike it seemed to be everywhere we looked.
Another interesting blue berry we came upon was the dwarf bilberry or blueberry (V. cespitosum) found in the northeastern and western US, Canada and Mexico. The berries are solitary on the bush rather than clustered. They are attached to the stalk a little differently, too, and don’t have the little crown on the fruit that you would ordinarily expect.
We rested briefly at an enormous glacial erratic known as Glen Boulder to take in the vastness and great silence above treeline, the magnificent views north toward the summit of Mt. Washington and down into Pinkham Notch far below. Then we had to press on. We couldn’t linger and pick berries, but we broke stride and reached down at times, to the left and right, to gather a few in hand as we hiked along in the sun.
We passed through high scrub, a woods where a white-throated sparrow sang from the top of a tree, then out into the open again. As we approached the promontory of Boott Spur, the terrain changed. Massive dark rocks and sedge were predominant. Close at hand were brilliant, miniature goldenrod, club moss and wolf spiders darting in and out of crevices in the rocks. We saw rattlesnake root, Lapland rosebay past bloom. I observed out loud how hard it is to take in the view while on the move, how traveling a stony trail requires so much attention to the ground! “True,” another said coming along behind, “but think of it, there is so much to see at one’s feet!”
Soon after came the long, challenging descent to the base of the mountain on the Boott Spur Trail, but we took it rock by rock. The sun was already low in the sky when we left the alpine zone and finally entered the woods. We said we wanted to return the following year and stay in the huts to spend more time studying the alpine plants rather than having always to hurry along. So, over the winter we made reservations for June when everything will be in bloom! High above the Gulf of Slides, we will witness pink and white, bell-like blossoms active with pollinating bees. We will step carefully, looking for patches of bilberry and blueberry. If we do, the plants may be able to hold their own, spreading rhizomes in the gravelly soil, and in the short growing season ahead form seeds inside each blue fruit for dispersal by the white-throated sparrow, warbler, mouse and vole.
Blueberries are a healthy food, especially the ones found in remote places where they haven’t been sprayed. Wild blueberries surpass many common fruits and even the cultivated varieties in the benefits they provide. They contain fiber, vitamin C and vitamin K, and their deep blue-purple color due to the numerous anthocyanins helps protect the plants from harsh growing conditions. It turns out that as antioxidants, the anthocyanins help protect human cells also. There are studies indicating blueberries may have a positive effect on memory and sugar regulation in the human body as well.
The freshest blueberries, the ones just picked when they are tastiest, bear a powdery, protective coating similar in appearance to moisture or dew. This is known as the “bloom.” So, to preserve freshness, it is best to wash blueberries only right before use.
Here is a method for drying blueberries, a sweet alternative to raisins to take with you on the trail, and a cornbread recipe. Both come from Maine Blueberry Recipes, Cooperative Extension Service, University of Maine, Bulletin 516, 1975. Also included are directions for the blueberry crisp we had around the campfire at Lower South Branch Pond at Baxter State Park years ago.
Spread blueberries thinly on trays. Place in the sun during the day and in a warm room at night for about one week. When thoroughly dry, the berries rattle. Pack in airtight containers. Berries will keep for twelve months.
Blueberry Corn Cake
Swedish botanist Peter Kalm (1716–1779), for whom laurel and azalea are named (Kalmia), wrote about maize with dried huckleberries baked by the Iroquois. Here is a slightly different version made with blueberries.
1 cup cornmeal
1/4 – 1/2 cup sugar
5 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup milk
1 beaten egg
1 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup blueberries
2 teaspoons melted butter
Sift dry ingredients together; add berries. Add milk and butter to the egg. Combine mixtures, stirring only until all ingredients are dampened. Pour into greased 9 x 9 inch pan. Bake in 425 degree oven 25 minutes.
Holley Mead’s Blueberry Crisp
Holley was with us when we camped at Lower South Branch Pond. She writes, “My cast iron Dutch oven has just recently recovered from that blueberry crisp! It was delicious though, I remember. Crispy it was. It was blueberries and butter in the Dutch oven, topped with oats, nuts, brown sugar and butter and cinnamon and salt, put into the coals of the fire while we were eating dinner.”
Frost, Robert. “Blueberries” and “Fragmentary Blue.” Complete Poems of Robert Frost. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1949.
Jones, M. T. and L. L. Willey. Eastern Alpine Guide. New Salem, MA: Beyond Ktaadn, Inc., and Boghaunter Books, 2012.
Minick, Jim. The Blueberry Years. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010.
Mittelhauser, Glen H. et al. The Plants of Baxter State Park. Orono, ME: University of Maine Press, 2016.
New England Wild Flower Society listings at gobotany.newenglandwild.org.
Slack, Nancy G. and Allison W. Bell. Field Guide to the New England Alpine Summits, 3rd ed. Boston: Appalachian Mountain Club Books, 2013.
Thoreau, Henry David. Wild Fruits. Edited by Bradley P. Dean. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2000.