Tasty little morsels that pop in your mouth that are loaded with flavor and nutrients, blueberries are hard to beat. We have several native varieties that to me personally are all delicious. What could be better than a hot blueberry muffin, or blueberry ice cream, or a slice of blueberry pie except blueberry pie a la mode?
Some variety of blueberry can be found growing all across the United States and northward throughout Canada, the Artic and into Alaska. They provide food for many birds and mammals including mice, squirrels, rabbits, foxes, bears and humans. Locally there are several varieties that grow on nearly all of the Milford Millponds Nature Preserve lands. Brown and Brown in Woody Plants of Maryland list more than a dozen species there. Delaware probably has nearly as many. These can be divided into two major genera that are referred to somewhat interchangeably as either blueberries (Vaccinium) or huckleberries (Gaylussacia). Both of these genera are in the large Heath family which includes wintergreen, heather, azalea, fetterbush, sourwood and rhododendron.
Growing up as poor truck farmers in Sussex County, my family referred to all of them as huckleberries and when picking they all went into the same pot, pail and pie. Because they are so small, compared to the commercial varieties now available, it took considerable effort to fill an eight quart bucket. We did, however, realize that there were five or more distinct species. If a nearby location was especially productive, we jokingly named the spot “Huckleberry Hollow” and would return the next season, without the aid of GPS, to the exact same location since blueberries are long lived plants except when over browsed by deer.
Personally, our biggest enemies were the heat, the mosquitoes, and the dreaded chiggers.
The following are a few of the varieties you can see on the Preserve starting with the low black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata).
These low shrubs grow in quite large, thick colonies that cover the sandy peninsulas jutting out into Blair’s Pond. Their fruits are small and black. (The camera reveals that they are really a very dark blue-black.) The berries are tasty to me and somewhat crunchy due to the fact the Gaylussacia berry ovary is ten-celled, each filled with a relatively large single seed.
This detail plus the fact the leaves have resin dots on their surfaces are two of the distinguishing field marks of the genus.
To view these resin dots you will need a good hand lens, preferably 10x or better and good light. (See photos.)
The blue dangle huckleberry (Gaylussacia frondosa) is found growing on much of the drier sandy areas of the forest.
The fruits are blue hanging on long slender pedicels, somewhat larger diameter (7-10mm) than the low black huckleberry, on shrubs that are three to six feet high. Once again, tasty to me but with a little crunchiness that I don’t mind at all. Keep in mind that I like dried figs! The Vacciniums or true blueberries have fruit with an ovary that is four or five-celled and contains numerous small seeds which are much less objectionable to connoisseurs. The finely toothed leaves do not have resin dots.
Since Vacciniums hybridize freely, species with intermediate characteristics may be found that resemble both parents making them difficult to identify. (Brown and Brown.) My advice is to enjoy them just as they are.
Often growing right among the two previous huckleberry varieties is a blueberry species in which the fruit always remains green (Vaccinium stamineum). My mother termed these “hog huckleberries” and we were told they were poisonous, which they are NOT, probably to discourage us from sampling them. Reference books call them deerberry or squaw huckleberry and indicate they are edible but without any blueberry taste, however, apparently an amber colored jelly can be made from them. The ones that I sampled, once I knew they were safe, tasted like sour green apples, so why bother?
In addition the low to medium height types just mentioned, there are two taller species, as much as six to ten feet in height that you will likely see.
First is the blue-fruited highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum). These bushes are several feet high at maturity and the berries are large, powder blue, sweet, and delicious. This is the type most people immediately think of as blueberries. The bushes can be very productive and almost all of the blueberries grown commercially in Delaware are cultivars of this species. In the natural forest they most frequently grow around the swampier wetlands bordering the seeps and bogs.
The black highbush blueberry (Vaccinium atrococcum) grows as a similar vase- shaped tall shrub but with fruits that are round, shiny, and black. These bushes seem to favor the drier areas of the forest. Although somewhat less productive, it was always a joy to find them simply because that were more unique.
The blueberries harvested commercially in Maine and sold as “wild blueberries” are from the lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolia). The small leaves of this species are acutely tapered at both ends.
The leaf margins are finely serrated with each tooth ending in a bristle tip. (See photo). Farther north entire hillsides can be seen covered with this type. Their foliage turns brilliant red in the fall, a calendar photographer’s delight. Because the berries are small but sweet they work well in baked recipes since the muffins, cake, or pancakes do not get soggy around them. The blueberries grown further south of our area are usually the “rabbit eye” blueberry (Vaccinium virgatum). Some trial plantings have been made by the Delaware Department of Agriculture in the past, but I do not know the results. They are native from North Carolina southward to Florida.
Blueberries were an important staple for many primitive cultures. Readily available and simple to preserve by simply drying in a warm environment they keep for months. The dried berries can be pounded in a mortar, blended with pounded dried meat, like venison or buffalo, mixed with melted suet or marrow fat, and placed into rawhide bags to be carried for many months as trail sustenance. As my best friend used to say at the beginning of every trip we took, “I’ll bring the pemmican”. Yummy! For more modern humans, blueberries can be spread out in a single layer on a cookie sheet and placed in the freezer. Once solidly frozen they can then be transferred into freezer containers as IQF (individually quick frozen), then the amount desired can simply be poured out later as needed.
There are two additional related plants that I want to mention and this seems like as good a place as any. The first is the box huckleberry (Gaylussacia brachycera). This very low creeping huckleberry has tiny evergreen leaves that closely resemble boxwood, hence its common name. Growing on dry gravelly riverbank soil in the shade of hardwood trees, it is one of the rarest plants in Delaware, and perhaps one of the rarest in the world. Delaware has very few remote locations where it grows. I have included a photograph for you to enjoy. Because of its rarity, the site location cannot be divulged.
Another surprising Vaccinium, in this case, is the cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon). You might imagine my surprise when I worked for the University of Delaware, to discover that some of our staff made an annual pilgrimage to our coastal dunes to harvest a few wild cranberries for the traditional Thanksgiving feast. My second surprise was to learn that the cranberry is not only related to the blueberry but is in the same genus, “kissing cousins” so to speak. Upon closer inspection of the raw fruit, the familial similarities can be seen, although the plants themselves could hardly look more different.
So take up your hand lens, call your buddy, grab the kids, and get outside to enjoy the bounty that you have locally. Please remember that you are a part owner in the Nature Preserve.