Blueberry species and characteristics
Blueberries are popular sweet, bright blue berries that are related to cranberries and the European bilberry. Blueberries are native to North America and are often mistaken for huckleberries, another blue berry that grows in similar regions. Wild blueberries were prized by Native Americans and they introduced the berry to the European settlers. Today the United States produces about 90% of all the blueberries in the world.
There are dozens of varieties of blueberry, but they are generally categorized into two types: the wild or lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) and the highbush blueberry (V. corymbosum). The lowbush blueberry plant grows to about three feet tall and produces small, intensely flavored berries. Its region is predominantly in Maine, Canada around the Atlantic Ocean, and Quebec. Highbush blueberry plants were selected and bred from these wild blueberries to produce plants that are up to twelve feet tall and grow larger, more colorful blueberries. They grow in a much larger region of the eastern United States from Florida to Canada with Michigan producing the most highbush blueberries per year. Both lowbush and highbush types are grown commercially, but most of the blueberries found in supermarkets are from highbush plants.
Blueberry bushes are either deciduous or evergreen depending on the species. The plants flower in the spring and the berries develop over the course of the next two to three months. Ripe blueberries range in color from blue to purple to even black and are roughly a thumbnail in size. All berries are light green on the inside with numerous tiny seeds. Blueberries have a wide season between April and November, depending on species and location. The peak harvest time is in July, which also happens to be National Blueberry Month.
Blueberries can be purchased fresh, frozen, canned, or dried. Blueberry juice can also be found in some specialty markets. Fresh blueberries can be commonly found in stores when they are in season. When purchasing fresh blueberries, look for firm berries with deep color. Inspect the carton carefully for any mold or damaged berries. Blueberries are often coated with a light white coating called "bloom" which is not harmful and actually helps prevent spoilage. Like other berries, blueberries tend to be more expensive than other fruits due to the labor required to harvest them and transport them to the stores while ripe. Cheaper berries may be found at your local farmer’s market. Of course, the cheapest berries come from wild plants. However, be careful if you decide to forage on your own, as there are several similar plants with blue berries that are bitter or even poisonous.
Slightly underripe blueberries are a bit tart. They become much sweeter and milder as they ripen. Ripe blueberries are so delicious they should be eaten alone, perhaps enhanced with a dollop of whipped cream, a sprinkling of sugar, or a lemon sauce. They can also be added to a fruit salad or mixed with other ripe berries. Sweet blueberries have been used for centuries to make all sorts of desserts and sweets including pies, cakes and sauces. The berries have a lower amount of pectin than other fruits but can still be made into preserves. Blueberries are fabulous when mixed into muffins, quickbreads, and, of course, pancakes. They also can be fermented to make wine. Dried blueberries have an interesting flavor and can be eaten alone or mixed into a trail mix or baked goods like bagels.
Nutritional and medical benefits of blueberries
Native Americans and settlers have used tea made from the leaves of the blueberry plant to treat a variety of ailments. Today the tea is thought to help treat diabetes, urinary tract infections, and gastrointestinal problems. The leaves contain a high level of tannins, which may explain their healing properties. The berries have very high levels of vitamins C and A. They also contain the highest level of antioxidants compared to other common fruits. Lowbush berries contain more antioxidants than the highbush berries.
Blueberries are blue because of a flavonoid called anthrocyanin. The berries actually start out green and develop their blue color as the amount of anthrocyanin increases. This flavonoid is currently being investigated by scientists for its ability to improve eyesight and slow aging.
The Joy of Cooking, revised edition, 1997.