I’m thrilled to have found my Blueberry Hill – or island that is….. Our northern island cottage among the pines is blessed with 2 acres or so of Lowbush blueberry plants. They happily grow in the acidic pine needle soil.
When we were vacation cottage shopping last fall, our crafty octogenarian real estate agent kept telling me that every property we visited had blueberries. I was skeptical, thinking “I bet he says that to all the Southern Ontario girls”……but still – I was excited. Were they REALLY blueberries? I fell into his trap…….
Blueberries Genus Vaccinium
In the spring, I asked my smartphone’s PlantSnap App, if the plants that were everywhere were blueberries. I wandered around, taking pictures of my plants with the phone, and looked up the name of the plant with the App. Now – it is well known that I’m not a fan of gadgets and apps – but when it comes to gardening – I’m all in!! There are a number of plant look-up tools – PlantSnap, PlantNet and even Google Lens are great.
At first my phone said no – I had Vaccinium, which didn’t sound so edible. It sounded a little like that darned shot in the arm nobody wants to talk about any more. Eventually, I realized that blueberries belong to the Vaccinium “Genus”. Thank goodness I didn’t whippersnip all those blueberry plants away. (Just a few).
Vaccinium refers to shrubs in the heath family which include – cranberry, bilberry, lingonberry, huckleberry and YES – blueberries!! I realized that I had about 2 acres of wild Lowbush blueberries. I was pretty excited – planning to bake blueberry pie and make blueberry jam when my harvest was ready! Maybe I would be a blueberry mogul.
The island also has Saskatoon berry shrubs and chokecherry trees here and there, as well as some dogwood and winterberry holly.
Buying Blueberry Plants
I have tried to plant blueberry bushes a few times in my Southern Ontario yards – and while the bushes grew, I neglected them for a few weeks in the hot weather, and lost them, never getting to harvest their delicious berries.
The shrubs are available in our garden centres in the spring, and even in those small supermarket garden displays. Even though I have so many wild blueberries, I had purchased some Lowbush blueberry shrubs (unhelpfully labeled – “assorted”) from my garden centre prior to heading north. They have been planted now – and though the plants are a little bigger than my wild blueberries – they are very similar in flower and berry size to the wild plants.
There are both Highbush and Lowbush blueberries in North America. (More to follow below!)
At home in Southern Ontario – Highbush blueberries would likely survive in my Zone 6 garden, with Lowbush being more cold hardy for my Zone 3 northern garden.
Soil for Blueberries
Blueberry plants will survive best in rich soil which is acidic. Their roots are typically fine, and so they need the soil they are planted in to be well prepared – loose and enriched with compost and possibly peat moss to make the soil more acidic and loose.
No need for that in my pine needle enriched soil! The island soil is almost entirely composed of decomposed pine needles, decayed wood and pine needles – an so is quite acidic. The roots of the wild Lowbush blueberry plants cling on tightly to the soil – and intertwine with all the other plants. The soil is very shallow – but the roots tangle with the loose pine needle soil.
Blueberries will survive in part shade – but sun is best so that they will flower and fruit fully. They also need bees to pollinate the flowers to produce fruit. Most of my blueberries are in the shade – and I haven’t seen too many bees – so I was curious as to how much fruit my plants would yield.
In the past I have left my blueberries without water and lost them – but blueberries do not like to sit in wet ground either – so good drainage is important! My previous yard was both marshy in the spring and dry in the summer, so they did not receive enough attention from me.
My wild blueberries have survived on this island for a few hundred or thousand years without me watering them – so I will leave them to Mother Nature. The plants are mostly in the shade and so they don’t get too parched!
Highbush vs Lowbush Blueberries
There are two main types of blueberries – the Highbush and the Lowbush are quite different, but taste very similar and can be interchanged in recipes.
The Northern Highbush Blueberry is Vaccinium Corymbosum. It is grows naturally in Eastern Canada and the Eastern and Southern United States. It has been imported to and is now grown in Europe, Japan, New Zealand and Northwestern United States.
The Lowbush blueberry is Vaccinium Angustifolium. It native to Eastern and Central Canada (from Labrador to Manitoba) and the Northeastern United States (from Maine to North Carolina). The “Lowbush” is just that – low – from 6 inches to 2 feet in height. These are the wild blueberries! Their berries are much smaller than those of their cousin – the Highbush blueberry.
The Highbush Blueberry is a taller deciduous shrub – 6 to 12 feet in height, which grows densely. The berries are larger than the Lowbush blueberry. They are more appealing for commercial production – because they are big and juicy!
The Highbush Blueberry is the most cultivated blueberry in North America, and a Southern variety has been created which grows in even warmer climates and does not require the chilling temperatures of a Northern winter.
There are different varieties of blueberry bushes growing naturally around the world. The blueberries that we tend to buy commercially are native to North America. Blueberries are better for you purchased fresh, but it is certainly handy to have them on hand in frozen form.
A recent study showed that frozen blueberries had much lower levels of the anthocyanin delphinidin (a flavonoid) than fresh. Wild Lowbush varieties of blueberries are more nutritious than Highbush berries. However, just because something is labelled as wild doesn’t mean it hasn’t been sprayed with pesticides. That label can mean that the berries are of the Lowbush variety, but they can still be sprayed or grown in farms. So wild does not mean organic. Sadly, an American study of domestically grown blueberries found 42 different pesticides on domestic blueberries!
So if you can find fresh, locally grown organic blueberries buy them!
Blueberries contain Vitamins K and C, manganese, fiber and copper. They also are rich in anthocyanin (which is an antioxidant). Anthocyanin provides blueberries with their deep blue pigment and has been shown to lower blood pressure, improve blood vessel function and slow mental decline with age.
A study showed that rats fed blueberries, had reduced abdominal fat and lower cholesteral.
Other studies showed that blueberries reduced breast cancer tumors in mice and slowed the spread of the disease. So if you are a rat or mouse, I’d recommend blueberries. As a human, needing to reduce abdominal fat and cholesterol, and wanting to avoid cancer I’m trying to eat them daily as part of my diet.
When fresh organic blueberries are not in season, I do typically keep a package of frozen blueberries in my freezer. I typically enjoy them with plain yogurt, on my cereal, and I make a blueberry preserve. I make a mean blueberry pie, but that’s a lot of trouble for everyday – so I make blueberry bread pudding, and blueberry bread quite often to get the rest of the family to eat blueberries!
Here’s a link to an easy Blueberry Bread Pudding Recipe. https://gardenlove.food.blog/2019/11/11/blueberry-bread-pudding/
My Blueberry Harvest
I did a quick Google earlier this summer. I thought, if I had 2 acres of wild Lowbush blueberries – how many blueberries will I harvest? How many pies will I bake – and how many jars of jam will I make. (I was pretty darn excited). I read that the average blueberry farm brings in 6000 pounds of blueberries per acre. – so that would be 12,000 pounds? That’s a lot of pie! But seriously, it’s not a farm – it’s a rock, and I’m not growing Highbush blueberries, there is no irrigation, no fertilizing, no sun, no bees and the berries are just growing wild among the rocks and pine needles. It would still be exciting to see how many berries would grow!
I picked the berries every day – wandering around looking for any berries that had turned blue! Typically, I grabbed about a handful of blueberries per day – from mid July to mid August. I washed the berries and flash – froze them each day. In the end – I had enough berries to make one batch of jam – 6 jars!!
I was a little disappointed until I noticed that the local garden centre was selling berries for $10 a pint. I know why blueberries are so expensive – it’s not because they are expensive to grow – it’s just that they are difficult to pick – a few berries here and there in each bush – and they are tiny after all. They may be free for the picking in the wild of Northern Ontario – but they are elusive, and picking them involves a lot of crawling around in rocky areas.
I know that next year I will harvest more blueberries – now that I know which plants produce the most and where to find them. I am betting my plants purchased from the garden centre will also produce a bunch of berries next year as well! No worries – learning about blueberries kept me busy this summer!
The following is a recipe for Blueberry Jam, that I used to prepare my little blueberry harvest. The recipe calls for 4 cups of prepared blueberries. This is about 6 or 7 cups of fresh or frozen (but thawed) – washed and sorted – and lightly crushed blueberries.
It is important to sort blueberries – to remove any little sticks from the ends – even from purchased frozen berries – those little twiggy bits just don’t break down in jam – and nobody wants to eat a twig!
I thawed and mashed my blueberries with a potato masher, and prepared this jam on one rainy afternoon. The only issue that I had was cleaning up the blueberry spills before they stained my countertop and everything in the vicinity of the stove.
This recipe requires 6 – 250ml mason jars. (I always prepare 1 extra jar – to catch any extra jam if I am so lucky!)
To prepare the jars – remove screw bands and sealing discs. Place clean jars in pot submerged with water. Bring water to a boil and simmer for about 5 minutes. (I also boil the bands.) Turn off heat – and carefully remove jars from water with tongs. Place on clean surface – paper towels or tea towels.
Reserve the hot water to warm the discs before sealing, and to sterilize the sealed jars after filling!
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Blueberry Jam FAQs:
How do you thicken blueberry jam?
A proven recipe with sugar and pectin will provide the best thickening method. For a pie filling recipe, make a slurry of corn starch and water – and gradually add to the blueberry mixture.
Why do you add lemon juice to jam?
Lemon juice reduces the PH of jam, helping it to react with the pectin and set. It also adds a nice tartness to the flavour of the blueberries and sugar.
Is blueberry jam good for you?
Yes. Although the jam contains sugar – it provides energy. The blueberries contain Vitamins K and C, manganese, fiber and copper and are rich in anthocyanin (an antioxidant) and low in cholesterol. Blueberries have been associated with lower blood pressure, improved blood vessel function, and the slowing of mental decline with age. Studies of rats and mice have linked blueberries to reduced abdominal fat, cholesterol and lower breast cancer rates.
Are blueberries high in pectin?
No they are not. Pectin is called for in preserve most recipes. Fresher, firmer blueberries will contain more pectin than older blueberries
Can frozen blueberries be used to make jam?
Yes. Allow the blueberries to thaw before making the jam. The texture may turn out a little different than for fresh jam, and the blueberries themselves lose some of their antioxidants – but they are still wonderful!
How do you preserve blueberry jam?
Use a professionally prepared or tested recipe. Do not alter quantities of fruit, sugar, pectin or acid – as it may alter the PH balance necessary to safely preserve. Can blueberry preserves in sterilized mason jars. Seal and heat jars according to directions.
How Long Will homemade blueberry jam last?
Correctly sealed unopened jars of jam should last up to 1 year. Opened jars should be stored for up to 3 weeks in the refrigerator.