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> White posted an advertisement “offering $50 apiece for wild blueberry bushes bearing berries as large as a cent.”

Ah. Let that be known as the advertisement that ruined blueberries. Why do we always optimize for size over flavor?

Commercially cultivated blueberries are flavorless compared to some of their wild counterparts. My family owns a 50-acre pick-it-yourself blueberry farm, Blueberry Park, at the top of a wooded mountain in the Hudson River Valley of upstate NY.

Prior to 100 years ago our farm was worked as a vegetable farm, but the fields were left fallow and wild blueberry bushes popped up. My family has owned it for about 70 years, and most of the bushes are a bit older than that. These are high-bush blueberries, 8-12 feet tall, and you can pick the berries standing up with a two-quart bucket hanging from your neck. The flavor of the berries is very potent compared to store berries, and they are smaller--about half the diameter of commercial berries (compare the crown size of these[1] to store-bought berries). They're truly incomparable in flavor to mass-market berries. Much more potent, and slightly more tart (though the tartness and sweetness vary from bush to bush). One wild berry has the flavor of a mouthful of commercial berries.

Just as flavor was lost with cultivation, so too were nutrients. As an indicator, wild berries are so rich in anthocyanins that picking a quart of them will (temporarily) stain your finger tips a deep blue. Wild berries are also more delicate, and have a shelf life of only a few days in the fridge once picked (though they can be spread on cookie sheets and frozen for greater longevity).

Due to our career diaspora, we don't have our farm open to public any more, but the family still goes up to pick each summer. Property taxes are so high it's hard to hold on to the farm, but we can't bear to sell it since we all have such fond memories of the place. My childhood black lab would run around with us plucking berries with her mouth as the family picked into buckets. One of my favorite memories of summer in the Northeast.

From the berries we would make pies, jams, cakes, muffins, and our personal favorite: "blueberry pizza," made from unsweetened pizza dough onto which blueberries were spread with a bit of butter and a light dusting of cinnamon and sugar.

I'd love to sequence the genomes of some of our bushes so their characteristics could be preserved. Barring that, I'd love to propagate them to other places. My fear is that if we ever do sell the farm, a developer will bulldoze the bushes and a place that was once magical (to me) will be lost.

Happy to answer any blueberry questions folks may have!

Edit: I'd also love to chat if anyone is interested in helping crowdfund an effort to create a reference genome sequence for highbush blueberries. The genome is estimated to be about 600Mb in size, so an $8k HiSeq 2500 run (w/ prep) would give ~180x coverage.

1. wild, highbush (ours): http://i.imgur.com/3SgdoFn.jpg

Large, high-bush blueberries can be almost as big around as a nickel, and still be delicious. At least the dozen or so bushes we used to have were. The key is that you can't pick them when they are merely blue, you have to wait for them to actually ripen and get to a dark purple, almost black. Berries that would be considered ripe if they were low-bush berries will be so sour you can't eat them. Commercial berries are picked wildly unripe, green or just starting to pinken.

Are the high-bush blueberries you're talking about commercially propagated cultivars, or wild? Ours are native/wild, and none of ours grow that large.

The fact that commercial berries are picked too early is definitely a factor in why store-bought ones are so bland (like tomatoes, and so many other crops that have to be shipped).

Probably half are commercial bushes we bought from Agway - no idea what strain they are. The others are older, older than I am, anyway, and who knows what they are...

Do you know what species your bushes are or where they originally came from? My grandfather had owned land in upstate NY that was covered with low and high-bush blueberries. My father cleared the land around the bushes and they grew to be huge.

I would love to know a good way to be able to buy "wild" blueberry plants but it's seemingly pretty hard to say "does this one taste like real blueberries or more like store-bought ones?" I'd be tempted to try to cultivate the ones on my grandfather's old land but I live out of the US now and it would be hard to get them to where I live so I'm instead shopping online and in farm centers for them.


edited to add: I have the same issue with a few currant bushes that came from my other grandfather's side of the family.

I don't know what species they are, unfortunately. If I had to guess, possibly Vaccinium corymbosum. That's another reason I'd love to sequence them; genomic data would help identify their taxon (or since there isn't a pre-existing reference for high-bush blueberries[1], it would define it). Transcriptome sequences would help characterize them. If anyone would care to (crowd?)fund the effort, it would be amazing to create a reference genome for for the high-bush blueberry.

To the best of our knowledge, they are truly wild and native. If your grandfather's land was near ours (Dutchess County), they may very well be the same species.

We mowed the field grass around the bushes each year to reduce competitive vegetation, and our bushes also grew to be huge. We never used pesticides or fertilizer, so they grow well where the conditions are right.

1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/genome/?term=Vaccinium+corymbos...

The land was in Broome county so perhaps similar. My father tried fertilizing some of them once with some commercial 10-10-10 NPK that he had laying around and while I think it did help them grow pretty big they also stopped giving much fruit for the next few years. I think they're best just left to themselves.

Your description could have been talking about the ones that grow here in Sweden. Then again, there are apparently American and European blueberries. Does that mean that we are not really experiencing the same kind of berries, you and I?

We are not! The "8-12 feet tall" tells part of the difference. Bilberries, or "European blueberries", is pretty much ground cover at 2 feet or so (and supposedly covers about 20% of the entirety of Sweden).

And annoyingly when buying "blueberries" in Denmark, what you expect and what you get a two different berries. We expect to get blueberries like the ones that grow in Sweden, instead we get "American blueberries".

There was a trend a few years ago, where the wonders of blueberries and their antioxidant content. I made people run out to buy blueberries in mass. They just bought the run one, because the claim was only sort of valid for European blueberries and everything in the stores was American blueberries.

I believe that technically they are suppose to mark them as "American blueberries, but no one seems to do that.

Indeed. What goes as "American blueberries" around here are less expensive than the ordinary ones, I think, and and nice and big to look at, but unfortunately don't taste much.

Sounds more like the "wild" blueberries that grow in Maine and Quebec, that tend to only grow about knee-high, and tend to have much smaller berries.

Ah, you're right. I didn't pay attention to that.

Until we sequence them, we will not know for sure how similar they are. Fun to be connected across the ocean by similar blueberries!

I've always thought with strawberries that the flavor was inversely proportional to the size.

Nah, it's whether or not they are actually ripe or not. Go to a pick-your-own place and pick some dark red, fist-sized berries and your mouth will thank you, and you'll never be happy with a grocery store strawberry again.

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