Maine’s wild blueberries are back and the picking is good — if you know where to look.
More than just a tasty treat wild blueberry picking provides a great outdoor activity for the family. All you really need to get started is a basket and a little patience.
Maine’s low bush blueberries, Vaccinium angustifolium, grow best in sunny open areas where the soil is sandy and acidic. They ripen in mid-summer and the picking is usually best following a wet spring. There’s plenty for the taking, too. The University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension estimates there are over 40,000 acres of wild blueberries statewide. You can find them here in the Boothbay/Wiscasset region growing along roadsides, in fields and in the woods.
The midsummer tradition of wild blueberry picking goes way, way back. Long before the first European settlers arrived, Native Americans were harvesting blueberries for food. Besides tasting good, they believed the plump indigo berries held curative properties. There’s some truth in that. Recent studies at the USDA indicate blueberries are a good source of antioxidants. They may also reduce the build up of bad cholesterol.
Picking wild blueberries requires some patience. Once you’ve located a patch, it’s easy to tell the ripe ones from the others by the color. The deep blue ones are the sweetest. The violet berries, more tangy in taste, aren’t fully ripe. The green ones should be left on the bush. Blueberries are perennials, which means if you find a sizable patch it will be there for you again next year and hopefully many years to come.
Collecting enough blueberries to make jam will probably take a few trips. Working alone, my wife can usually fill a four-quart basket in a few hours, but doing so takes practice. If you’re just starting out, take your time and don’t over do it; it’s a slow process but the rewards are worth the effort. Think blueberry muffins, blueberry pie, or envision blueberry pancakes topped with melted butter and maple syrup. Heavenly.
If you’re picking on a hot sunny day, be smart use sunscreen, wear a hat and bring along some bottled water. Having some insect repellent handy is a good idea to ward off ticks and mosquitoes. Be wary of poison ivy and poison sumac. If you’re picking near power lines keep in mind the area might have been sprayed. If the blueberry bushes are brown or dying don’t pick the berries from them. Remember to always thoroughly rinse your berries with water before eating or cooking with them.
Blueberries are fine for the freezer. By stocking up you can enjoy them long after the season has ended. Here’s a handy tip for freezing blueberries from “The New England Berry Book” by Bob Krumm. Spread the dry berries on trays or cookie sheets and place them in your freezer. After they’re frozen pour them into plastic containers or freezer bags and then pop them back into the freezer. Doing this keeps the blueberries from clumping together. Frozen berries can be used to cook with the same way as fresh ones! Krumm’s book includes two-dozen different blueberry recipes including one for brewing blueberry wine.
If roughing it in the Maine wilds doesn’t appeal to you there are a number of pick-your-own blueberry farms. Finding them is as easy as doing a Google search. These establishments located throughout the state feature mostly “high bush” blueberries that require a lot less bending. It’s always best to call ahead to see if these farms are open for picking.
If doing your own picking is too much for those aged muscles, just know that there are plenty of roadside vendors selling fresh-picked wild Maine blueberries. The season varies around the state but usually runs until to the latter part of August.
There’s also the Union Fair & Maine Wild Blueberry Festival to enjoy from Aug. 22 through Aug. 28 at the Union fairgrounds. The festival features a blueberry pancake breakfast and a blueberry pie-eating contest. There’s also the annual coronation and crowning of Maine’s Wild Blueberry Queen.
So what are you waiting for? Get out while the picking is still good!