Produce Provenance

A Wild History Packed into a Small, Blue Berry

Blueberries have gone from being integral to indigenous practices and survival to a global agricultural marvel, playing a key role in the American Civil War along the way.

by John Paap

As massive ice glaciers retreated more than 12,000 years ago, in what is now Maine and Eastern Canada, the landscape was transformed. No longer was there just white, but a palette of colors now spread across the contours of the land carved out by the ice. Hills, valleys, lakes and bogs, soils of clay, silt and sand, with scattered boulders throughout now formed the terrain. New life in the land meant new opportunities for vegetation, and one of the first plants to emerge was the blueberry bush.

 Wild blueberries flourished in the rocky, acidic soil and cold climate of eastern Maine and Canada. Fields of wild blueberries painted the landscape green and blue but they weren’t just pretty to look at, they were also an important food. Soon after the glaciers retreated and the land became more hospitable, the Wabanaki tribes settled in this region and made use of this abundant fruit. The Wabanaki would gather blueberries and boil them for a few hours before shaping them into cakes and drying them in the sun. These cakes, one of the original energy food bars, included other ingredients such as fish or meat and could last for months. But beyond a source of sustenance, the blueberries also had cultural and religious significance to the various Wabanaki tribes.

 The Maliseet, a Wabanaki tribe, believed that since the blueberry was the food of the bear it brought stamina. Bears absolutely love blueberries, which are a critical part of the animals’ diet. Bears aside, other tribes thought that these star-shaped berries were sent by the Great Spirit (the Creator) down from the heavens to relieve the hunger of his children. The indigenous people would use controlled burns to increase the yields of the sacred blueberries, a technique still used today. 

 After thousands of years of enjoying blueberries among themselves (and, of course, sharing the fruit with the bears), a new group of people arrived from across the ocean: the Europeans. In 1615, French explorer Samuel de Champlain gave the earliest known account of Native Americans eating blueberries. He made note in his journal that the berries were wonderfully abundant and had watched indigenous women drying the berries, which they used in cornmeal bread. The first European settlers grew fond of the blueberries relatively quickly as they were similar to the types of berries they were familiar with back home. With education from the native peoples, European settlers learned how to prepare blueberries for use in various dishes such as pies, jellies and even wine. Outside of food, the early colonists also boiled down blueberries in milk mixed with other plants to make paint. Have you seen the famous blue paint used in traditional homes of Shakers? That’s right, they were made with blueberries.

 As Europeans expanded across the North American continent, and the new nation of the United States of America was established, the wild blueberry remained a local food, unknown to many. In 1861, with the eruption of the United States Civil War the awareness of blueberries exploded. Prior to the war, Washington County in Maine was the center of the sardine canning industry. A major market for these canned sardines was the South — a cheap, efficient food that was fed to enslaved peoples. Once the war broke out, Southern markets disappeared and the Maine canneries switched to canning the crop in their backyard, blueberries. The Union army needed fruit to prevent scurvy and canned blueberries fit the bill. Blueberries were so widely consumed among Union troops that by the end of the conflict, many soldiers from the North had developed a taste for the fruit. As a result, the blueberry industry grew.

 At the turn of the 20th century, while consumption of blueberries had grown, they were still not a truly viable crop. Blueberries were still being harvested and farmed in the wild, there were no cultivated blueberries. Frederick Coville of the U.S. Department of Agriculture wanted to change that. Coville was convinced that it should be possible to cultivate blueberries instead of only harvesting wild ones. Through many trials, Coville discovered that blueberries require acidic soil. In his lab, he was able to replicate this “poor soil” and pinpoint the specific requirements for growing blueberries. But it would take another individual to help Coville realize his dream on a commercial scale. 

Elizabeth C. White and her father operated one of the largest cranberry farms in the country, located in New Jersey. Often enough, White would notice wild blueberries growing near their bogs and believed that a domesticated variety would be valuable. For White, adding blueberries to their farm’s portfolio would extend the growing season, giving extra employment to their pickers. After seeing a U.S. Department of Agriculture publication on possibilities for domesticating wild blueberries, White and Coville connected. In 1911, White provided Coville the perfect land to cultivate and a plethora of wild plants to develop. White was so committed to the success of this project that she offered neighbors not only cash but immortality (at least in name). Should a person find the best wild bush with the largest berries that can be domesticated, White promised that the bush would be named after them.

Of the 120 wild bushes found, only a few ultimately proved worthy of propagating. The best one was a bush found by a man named Rube Leek. While White promised the winner immortality, the name of the man proved challenging. As shared by White, “Rube” seemed “a poor name for an aristocratic bush.” “Leek” was also out of the question considering its close association with onions. Finally, Coville found the answer. The name would take the first name and last initial: “Rubel.” The Rubel became the first propagated variety, and while the berries are small by today’s standards, it is still grown today.

 Coville went on to develop so many varieties that a majority of the domestic blueberry varieties enjoyed today are ancestors of his hybrids. Given that the first cultivated blueberries were developed in New Jersey, it is no surprise that this has become the state’s official fruit. But what about Maine, home of the wild blueberries? Maine remains the world’s largest producer of wild blueberries, but you won’t generally find them for fresh consumption, even though they may be healthier and tastier. Because they don’t travel well, wild blueberries are mostly sold as frozen or canned — just as they were during the Civil War. But that’s not the only piece of history continuing today. 

 Despite the theft of their ancestral lands, the Wabanaki remain connected to their ancestral crop. Today, the Passamaquoddy Tribe owns 2,000 acres of barrens in Columbia Falls, Columbia, Centerville and Township 19 in Maine. The Passamaquoddy Wild Blueberry Company (PWBC) has been growing and harvesting wild blueberries since 1981 and have been reinvesting 100% of the company’s profits into future growth or distribution among the Passamaquoddy Tribe. While they’ve been through centuries of struggle since European arrival, the Wabanaki have persisted in preserving the plant they have been connected to for thousands of years. The blueberry for many around the world may just be a delicious fruit, but for the Wabanaki it is part of their identity — a connection to their ancestral past.  

  • John Paap is the Sustainability and Brand Marketing Manager at Jac. Vandenberg, Inc. and co-host of the “History of Fresh Produce” series on The Produce Industry Podcast.