order of contents:
Heath plant family (Ericaceae)
Blueberry Oxymel Mocktail Recipe
Low-sugar canning Blueberries
Turtle T. Turtlington’s Blueberry mead recipe
How can I write about Blueberry (Vaccinium spp.) and not reminisce on my time living seasonally in the feral Birch (Betula spp.) and Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) filled hills of so called New England. I specifically lived and spent time in the territory of the Abenaki and Pennacook. All roads seemed to lead to the Connecticut River where the strict divide between the cultures of Vermont and New Hampshire were magically cut with those sometimes swift waters. It was an experience like crossing over into your fun uncle’s garage while crossing the bridge to towns like Brattleboro, VT where technically it is legal to ride your bike naked in town. At least that was the rumor when I lived nearby. The village environment, the lack of sprawling box stores, the contra dancing, the access to wild space intermingled with day-to-day life, the quality of locally grown food. These are the things I remember the most. I was astounded by how every region seemed to have a town swimming hole: a pristine lake shaded by Fir (Abies spp.) and Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), granite boulders and small side bogs. Every little quaint village seemed to have a ‘town forest’ nearby too, or a really accessible hiking trail- that inevitably led to a Heath bald, with a 360 view or nearly so, covered in the only plants that seemed to be able to grow in such a harsh environment. Blueberry was one of them. It is the essence of pure late summer in New England to venture up to the high spaces, and collect gallons of berries for putting away. These spaces are like a kind of commons for such harvests- seemingly endless if you’re willing to bush-wack. It’s not to say that I didn’t see entire areas picked over, but the thing is- there’s not a lot of people in New Hampshire, where I lived specifically. And there’s lots of blueberries to go around. If you don’t want to go wild harvest, it is certainly easy to go to a farm and U-pick for a fairly cheap rate per gallon. Some people maintain wild stands for picking, too. It wasn’t like in North Carolina, where the heath bald islands exist in much smaller areas due to the way that glaciation pushed certain plant communities south. It meant a little more competition for blueberries, which seemed to be what every tourist wanted to go do on the parkway. Many Heath islands or ‘balds’ in the sky remained where the temperatures and climate suited their needs. You’ll find plant communities up high with Spruce (Picea sp.), various Birch species (Betula spp.), and Blueberry in North Carolina, though the presence of these plants and their communities is changing due to rapidly rising global temperatures.
I learned more about the ecology of Blueberry in relationship to glaciers when I ventured to the Adirondacks for a few summers and spent some time at a friend’s family cabin on an island. It was a strange shaped island, very long and narrow- and I never actually walked to the end of it. At times, along the trail that traversed the length of the land you could throw a rock on one side or the other. One side of the very narrow island was a lake that led to a meandering watery passageway that eventually ended at a spruce bog and a small beaver dammed creek. There were other tiny islands one could canoe onto and camp. The other side of the island became the big clear and open part of the lake, where other large islands could be found. The island was practically pure piles of rock, and some areas of it were dark and more complex forest, I remember red fruited Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) carpeting the floor. The island was called an ‘esker,’ which is the name for a geological process of sediment build up that forms a ridge deposit due to glacial melting. This island was perhaps formed from sediment building up because of a river running under the glacier that was once there. So, the lake eventually formed around the island of sediment, as the glacier melted more over time. Once the glaciers completed melting, the island left was primarily composed of what larger sediment deposited there. This sediment could have come from what was held inside the glacier, or the land the glacier carved away and broke up as it moved and melted. Because of the time that has gone by post-glaciation (which is actually fairly recent in deep time) and what time frame it takes to build topsoil, and the composition of the land of the island and other islands is still very rocky. The primary ecology of the esker island consists of acidic loving plants, because there isn’t much soil, and what is there is fast draining. Different Pine (Pinus sp.) species were able to create a forest on the narrow island, and the needles they drop are acidic, and the soil that is there is primarily made of decomposing Pine needles. When it rained while I was there, it seemed as though the wetness only lasted a moment before the moisture ran right through. The soil was thin. Blueberries and other Heath family members dominated the understory, as well as swarms of mosquitoes! Eskers occur all over the world, in places like Sweden, Finland, Michigan, parts of Canada and beyond. I certainly could have experienced them in New Hampshire or Maine during my time there too. A family in a neighboring cabin had tons of local ecology books, and being the place-based researcher that I am, I read through as many as I could to give context to the place where I was.
Heath plant family (Ericaceae)
Members of the Heath family are often pretty easy to spot. The environment gives clues in some instances- are you up high? Is it a harsh climate? Is it shrubby and leathery-leafed? They also are drawn to thick bogs. Generally, this family likes acidic soils. Most have flowers that are urn-shaped and bell-like but not always. They are usually found in colder climates, less so in the tropics and sub-tropics, and are generally adapted to dealing with stress. Lots of members of this family are edible or medicinal, but some are deadly poisonous.
I didn’t grow up with a ton of Heath family members around me but species like Sparkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum) did grow in the poorer soils (Xeric hardpan) of the Piedmont of Virginia where I am from. Also in the southeast, both in the Piedmont and in the Appalachian mountains is Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), a medium sized tree with edible Vitamin C rich leaves. The flowers of this tree spray a beautiful cascade of white bell shaded blooms. These bell shaped flowers are pretty similar to how they look in other Heath family members. As I write this in northern California, the warm January temperatures have sparked a slightly early flowering of Manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.), a Heath family shrub that grows in the west and Mexico. Also in California and the west coast is another Heath family tree, of which there aren’t very many, the Madrone (Arbutus menziesii), which flowers later in the Spring and hangs a droop of mealy but edible berries that ripen a bright rich red come fall. Manzanita also has edible berries, really more like a sweet treat that turns to powder in the mouth. Both Manzanita and Madrone have red/crimson/orange color and patchy barks that have them decorating the forest with rich blood-shades.
Back in the northlands, you’ll find tiny aromatic Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), also acidic soil loving, with evergreen leaves and red berries sprawling under mixed Conifer forests. I used to collect the leaves for mild tea - full of methyl salicylates, when I lived in New Hampshire.
When I worked at a cross country ski area in southern New Hampshire, I’d ski whenever I could and explore the winter landscape, even late at night. I’d often traverse onto frozen ponds, or Andy would take me to sprawling swamps, that when frozen over could be explored. When the ponds were just ice- usually because of cold temps but a break in the snow, you’d be in for some good ice skating. Often on the edges of these swamps and ponds, you’d find Sphagnum moss and Cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) poking out of the ice. And, you could see them frozen and captured in time under your feet. It still is something I’m getting used to coming from the south, where walking on frozen ponds was not a normal part of life. I also noticed Heather (Calluna vulgaris) and Juniper (Juniperus communis) growing under the power lines, where I’d ski sometimes for an easy route to a cabin I once lived in. Heather, in the Heath family, has tons of folklore and tales surrounding it, and was traditionally used to brew beers and other alcoholic beverages in old Europe, well before ingredients like Hops were included. It has been said that it has potentially psychoactive properties when brewed, but I have not tried it myself.
Also in the northlands, and at high elevations in the west- Arctostaphylos uva-ursi or ‘Uva-ursi’ grows as a low shrubby ground cover and is known for being a great plant for Urinary Tract Infections as is Blueberry and Cranberry. (We’ll get to that!)
I’d like to mention Rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.), since I noted at the beginning of this section that some members of this family are poisonous. Rhododendron is very abundant in Appalachia (and Asia!), and one could get lost in a grove of its maze-like bramble of darkness, often with not many other plants growing under their leathery leaves. Rhododendron is poisonous and is best only used as a flower essence (Try One Willow Apothecaries’ essence of Rhododendron here). I’d even stay away from burning a bunch of it and breathing it in!
Blueberry genus - Vaccinium
Blueberries are shrubs that can vary in size, have white, pink or green bell shaped flowers. Their leaves can be evergreen or deciduous. Blueberry bark peels and has a certain twisted shredded quality - something I look for when a shrub its size does not have leaves and I am trying to ID it.
The common name Blueberry can actually refer to a few different species of Vaccinium, and often Vacciniums are called Huckleberries or Bilberries depending on where you are, and some plants are Vacciniums but are not called either- like Cranberry. Samuel Thayer breaks it down in his book ‘Nature’s Garden,’ where he features a handful of his favorite wild edibles, and relays his ACTUAL EXPERIENCE harvesting and eating these plants or groups of plants (not always the case with other books on foraging). He explains while talking about Blueberry, that the Gaylussacia genus, closely related to Blueberry, is attached to the name ‘Huckleberry’ in the eastern U.S., and when white settlers walked west with their naming, attached Huckleberry to Vacciniums that tasted sour - sometimes with red berries, sometimes blue.
“Thus the ‘huckleberry’ group in the East (Gaylussacia) is distinctly separate from the ‘blueberries’ (blue-fruited Vaccinium). In the West, however, there is not such an obvious or logical distinction: “huckleberries” are those particular members of the Vaccinium genus that people have chosen not to call ‘blueberries.’ Adding to the confusion is the name ‘bilberry,’ given to some of the northern blueberries with more rounded leaves and awned anthers.”
With this said, the red fruited ‘Huckleberries’ of the West that dominate the mountainsides of numerous ranges are technically Blueberries. As Samuel Thayer explains in ‘Nature’s Garden,’ these different varieties as well as Cranberry are often treated a little differently when it comes to harvesting for food and preservation.
Picking Huckleberries was and is extremely important to the native tribes that call their groves home across the West. In ‘Wild Berries of the West,’ the authors explain that many of these groves seem to be managed by women, and had names. During berry picking times, usually August and September, you’d find fruit drying everywhere around camp. The authors explain that
“For the Nez Perce and Chinook, September was berry month, the time of one of the four seasonal first fruits celebrations. After the ceremony, the Indians left for the berry picking grounds to stay until mid-October.”
Blueberries are highly cultivated, for good reason. They taste good! The differentiation between ‘high bush’ and ‘low bush’ blueberries seems to lie in a designation of ‘wild’ vs. ‘cultivated’ varieties, with low bush being on the wilder side, a smaller bush with smaller berries but with intense flavor. Certain varieties are more adapted to certain areas, and what is cultivated in a farm or wild-simulated situation depends on the region. The leaves of Blueberry can be evergreen or deciduous. The berries have a singular small crown on the end, and the berries, especially the blue ones, have a sheen of ‘wax’ on them. This wax, found on other plants and berries of plants too- functions to decrease moisture loss, protects the berry, and reflects light. Whoah, how cool.
Out west, especially in the Pacific Northwest, several plants are called Huckleberry like evergreen Vaccinium ovatum, and some of these varieties form dense understory communities along with Ericaceae cousin Salal (Gaultheria shallon) which also has edible berries. The red berried usually deciduous tart variety is Vaccinium parvifolium. Often these varieties can be growing together along with other Vaccinium species. Hiking in the Bitterroot mountains mid summer (Nez Perce Territory), one could easily eat their fill of Vaccinium species along with Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), and Saskatoon/June berry (Amelanchier alnifolia).
Cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos), as I mentioned before while ice skating and skiing on swamps and bogs in New Hampshire— is found wild and is also widely cultivated for commercial use in juice and concentrates.
Blueberry fruits contain tons of bioflavonoids called anthocyanins. They are responsible for giving the berries their rich dark color. The fruits also contain Vitamin C and other anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds. The fruits make a good dessert, sweet but not too sweet. They’re also good for breakfast, or really any time of day! I especially like eating them right off the bush when the season is right.
So like its cousin Cranberry, the leaf of Blueberry is useful for urinary tract infections. It aids in acidifying the urine, which is already naturally acidic. UTI’s occur for any number of reasons- drinking too much alcohol and being dehydrated, stress, wearing tight polyester fiber clothing, not peeing after sex, too much sugar intake, among other causes. Folks with vaginas experience more UTI’s because of their anatomy. Folks with vaginas that menstruate also can have a moon-like hormone cycle that affects the acidity of the urine during certain times in that cycle. A tea infusion of the leaf of Blueberry with or instead of Cranberry juice can be helpful. I feel like the Cranberry juice is too much for me after a couple days, making my mouth sore from the Vitamin C concentration and pucker, so having other alternatives is helpful.
Reading through Michael Moore’s write up on Blueberry in Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, I notice he mentions the compound ‘arbutin’ found in Blueberry leaves, and it sparked my attention because the genus of Madrone, also in the Ericaceae family, is Arbutus. I am not certain about Madrone actually containing the arbutin compound, which is according to Michael Moore, along with ericoline ‘are excreted as disinfecting quinones in alkaline urine.’ (86) But, Uva-ursi and Manzanita, both Ericaceae family members in the Arctostaphylos genus, contain the compound and are both also helpful for UTI’s. Uva-ursi is especially known for this medicinal purpose. Although, I have gotten feedback from one person who used to have UTIs chronically, that Uva-ursi didn’t help them, but that soups made with medicinal mushrooms, bone broth, and cranberry juice were their main allies. I say all of this because it demonstrates how knowing plant families and how certain plants are related and how to notice them on the land, is helpful for emergency first aid or in the field medicine. I had a friend who came down with a UTI while backcountry skiing and the only thing around was Uva-ursi, and it helped her.
Collect Blueberry leaves to dry when they look the greenest and freshest. Up at high elevations, or further north they can start turning color as early as August so I’d collect according to where you live in the season necessary. Michael Moore explains that not all leaves are equally medicinal, so just taste test them. If they have complexity, they are strong medicine, if they are not complex tasting, and bland, I’d try another patch. Of course, if it’s all you’ve got and you need UTI medicine right now, harvest what is available.
Blueberry Oxymel mocktail
(totally alcohol free!)
Blend fresh or thawed frozen blueberries, coconut water in a blender.
blend until smooth.
fill have a quart mason jar with the berry blend, fill the other half with sparkling water.
add 2-4 dropperfuls of Blueberry Oxymel (blueberry infused vinegar and honey) to the glass and stir.
Low Sugar Blueberry canning
I love canning and putting up the harvest. When I was a farmer, nearly every week I was canning something from the garden to store for eating later. Living on the road on and off the past few years, I have tended to can less, because it’s more weight to carry around. But, occasionally, it makes sense. A roadkill deer with tons of meat, or a huge batch of some fruit harvest calls for different methods of preservation. Drying fruits is the lightest way to store things. Canning preserves more of the flavor and nutrition of the food, but also requires more equipment and tools.
Sugar is a preservative. When making jams, or preserving fruit through canning, it is recommended to add sugar, lemon juice and/or pectin. The purpose of this is to help prevent botulism, a potentially deadly illness that comes from a bacteria that can grow in improperly canned foods. Blueberries are fairly safe on the spectrum of foods that can grow botulism, because of their acidity. So, you can use less sugar in recipes for canning them. I sometimes will can the fruit whole with a weak sugar water, or go further and make the jam by cooking down the berries for a bit and adding pectin or chopped apple peels to thicken it.
Blueberry MEAD recipe by Turtle T. Turtlington
Turtle was Ground Shots Podcast guest from episode #4,. An intermediate/advanced mead making episode with Turtle is coming soon. We’re not going into super detail on everything that goes into mead making in this recipe- stay tuned for our podcast episode on the subject to find out more.
Sam’s Knob Blueberry Mead //
ingredients you need:
-4 gallons of good water. (spring water if you can find it.)
-10 to 12 lbs of dark Honey (I like to use Blackberry Honey. Tulip Poplar will work)
-1/2 lb. of fresh Ginger (chopped. Use 2/3 lb. for a zestier, spicer flavor!
-1 gallon of whole Blueberries (frozen. That’s roughly 5 to 5 1/2 lbs.)
-1 packet of Yeast, suitable for producing Mead. (I like Lalvin D47.)
In a large pot bring a gallon of the water to a boil, and add the Ginger. Let boil for 45 min. Let cool. In a separate, larger pot bring the remaining water to a nice warm temperature. Just below 100* is nice. We just want to melt the honey, and by no means do we want to overheat it, which would ruin some of the beneficial qualities of RAW honey. Combine the two pots in your 5 gallon glass carboy. Use a large funnel. You can get them at brew supply stores. Chop up the Ginger fine enough to fit it through the funnel. Use a chopstick to push the chunks through. Yes, it helps to have two people. Make Mead Not War, brew with friends! I like to add the Ginger to the carboy for the Primary Fermentation phase. It adds a lot more flavor, and ginger is known to be a prebiotic and a probiotic, so the Yeast LOVE it! Apparently they colonize on the surfaces of the Ginger. Another good reason to chop it up into many pieces.
“But what about the Blueberries?”
Well, they’re still in your freezer. In order to obtain that rich blueberry flavor, we want to hold back on adding them. This goes for many of the fruits that are fun to ferment; Blackberries, Huckleberries, Mulberries, Strawberries, etc. These delectable fruits are packed with flavors that can be lost if put through the initial stages of fermentation in which sugars are converted into alcohol and CO2 is created as a byproduct. The CO2 is what escapes through the little airlock at the top of the carboy, and if our delicate fruits are present in the Primary Fermentation, then we will lose the fruit esters and all of their subtle flavors with it. So we are going to add the Blueberries at the stage known as Secondary Fermentation. Once the Yeast has converted most of the Honey (this takes about a month), the bubbling of the airlock will have slowed down. And that means that the Yeast has too. This is good. We don’t want the Yeast to get excited that there is a bunch of new sugar for them to feast on, or else they will wake back up, and eat it all! Which isn’t a terrible thing, you’ll just end up with a much drier mead. Again, not a terrible thing.
When you are getting about a “blub” a minute (or better, a “blub” every two or three minutes), you can rack the brew into a secondary fermenter. (Racking involves siphoning the liquid into a second, sanitized fermenter.) Here is where we introduce the Blueberries to the mead. Thaw them first. We don’t want to give the mead a chill (we can do that later, like right before we about to drink it!) Meads and wines like to stay at a moderate temperature during their fermentation stages, not too warm, not too cold.
Place the thawed Blueberries (or what ever fruit your using) into the secondary fermenter. Now siphon the brew from the previous fermenter onto the fruit. When finished, replace the airlock onto the secondary fermenter. And let sit for at least a few more weeks. But letting it mature for a month or two is better. Tip: Transfer the frozen Blueberries from your freezer to your fridge the night before. They will be perfectly thawed. Use a 6 gallon carboy for your Secondary Fermenter. If your math is correct, you will have about a half gallon or more mead left over that won’t fit in a 5 gallon carboy. You could always just drink the excess. Or put it into a 1 gal. fermenter. I have a food grade brewing bucket that I like to use. It holds 6 gallons and the lid is fitted with an airlock. Bottle and preserve in a dark place. At least one month. Serve chilled. Pairs well with sunsets, campfires and good friends. For added flavor try putting a few tablespoons of Rooibos Tea or Lavender Flowers into the Ginger Tea stage!
Elpel, Thomas. Botany in a Day. Hops Press. 5th Edition. Pony, Montana: 2010.
Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Museum of New Mexico Press. Santa Fe: 1993.
Thayer, Samuel. Nature’s Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting and Preparing Edible Wild Plants. Birchwood, Wisconsin. Forager’s Harvest Press: 2010.
Derig, Betty B. and Fuller, Margaret C. Wild Berries of the West. Mountain Press Publishing Company. Missoula, Montana: 2001.
Wikipedia: Epicuticular wax, Ericaceae, Arbutus.
Jug Handle State Reserve Brochure. California State Parks. California Department of Parks and Recreation. https://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/441/files/Jughandle_Brochuretas2016A.pdf