Culturally and Economically Important Nontimber Forest Products of Northern Maine
Blueberry, Vaccinium spp.
Other names: Lowbush (Vaccinium angustifolium), highbush (Vaccinium corymbosum), bleuet (French), sahtiyil (Maliseet), pkuman (Mi'kmaq)
"There was a big place across the river where we lived that had been burned...The blueberries were just tremendous. That’s where they come, it’s after a fire...Everybody goes and picks it." -Faye Hafford
Many people equate the state of Maine with wild blueberries. In fact, lowbush blueberry is the state fruit, and each summer, large quantities of the berries are commercially harvested near the coasts of Downeast Maine. Many Native American residents of the St. John River watershed used to travel to other parts of the state to earn seasonal income as blueberry pickers. Lowbush blueberries, along with highbush blueberries, remain a favorite wild food of area residents.
Physical Description: Both lowbush and highbush blueberries have nodding, white to pinkish colored bell-shaped flowers that appear in small clusters. Flowers are followed by familiar blue to blue-black berries with many seeds. Lowbush blueberry is a short, spreading shrub growing up to 2 feet tall. Plants often form dense colonies. Leaves are glossy, narrowly elliptical with a small, sharply-toothed margins. Highbush blueberry is a shrub that grows up to 15 feet tall. Leaves are simple, egg-shaped, smooth or waxy above, with hairs on undersides. Twigs are yellowish-green in color.
Habitat: Lowbush blueberry tolerates a variety of soil moisture levels and can be found growing in forests, clearings, bog margins, old fields, and areas that have been recently burned. Plants are often found in sandy or rocky soil. Although low-bush blueberries can persist in the forest understory, they need ample light to produce fruit. Highbush blueberry is most common in moist to wet soil but can also be found on drier upland sites. Shade-intolerant highbush blueberries often grow around forest edges, swamps, bogs, and marshes. Blueberries prefer moderate to strongly acidic soil. Several interviewees noted that blueberries are more abundant in other parts of the state:
"Of course, the blueberry is also harvested where you find it available in northern Maine, but it is far less common to find the blueberry in northern Maine than when you get a little further south into eastern Maine, and also somewhat down around the Kathadin area where you get to the tree line, and the areas, the interim area between the non-tree line and tree line, I know a lot of people that will go all the way down to the Katahdin area from here to gather blueberries, during blueberry season." -Tim Scott
Uses: Blueberries are primarily enjoyed as a delicious summertime fruit. Blueberries are also considered a medicine to Native Americans and are incorporated into certain ceremonies. Although it is not colorfast, a blue dye created from the berries, is sometimes used to dye brown ash splints used in baskets.
Preparation: Many people enjoy eating blueberries fresh, but they are also a favorite in pies and jams.
When to harvest: In northern Maine, blueberries become ripe in mid-summer, from late July into August. The flavor of wild berries can vary in intensity from year to year, depending on environmental conditions. For example, in 2008, a wet rainy summer produced large, somewhat bland berries.
Tips for Sustainable Harvesting/Management: In areas with a limited supply of berries, harvest in moderation. Consider birds and other wildlife that also depend on this vital food source.
Information about medicinal plant uses is provided for educational purposes only. It should not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment and is not a substitute for consultation with a licensed physician.
Last Modified: 05/24/2010