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The Highbush Blueberry
History   Improvement   The Industry   Growing   Processing   Marketing

History

 

The blueberry of the genus Vaccinium, is a native American species. In fact the blueberry is one of the few fruits native to North America.

Farm Tour
U-pick farms

Take a tour of a real blueberry farm! Watch out you are going to get blue!

 

 
Blueberries are one of the few truly blue foods on earth?
 
Blueberries are one of the few fruits native to North America? (Can you name the others?)
 
Blueberries are part of the Vacinnium Species of plants which have a relative that grows on the slopes of Hawaiian Volcanos!

 

 

Native American Tradition: For centuries, blueberries were gathered from the forests and the bogs by Native Americans and consumed fresh and also preserved. The Northeast Native American tribes revered blueberries and much folklore developed around them. The blossom end of each berry, the calyx, forms the shape of a perfect five-pointed star; the elders of the tribe would tell of how the Great Spirit sent "star berries" to relieve the children's hunger during a famine. Parts of the blueberry plant were also used as medicine. A tea made from the leaves of the plant was thought to be good for the blood. Blueberry juice was used to treat coughs. The juice also made an excellent dye for baskets and cloth. In food preparation, dried blueberries were added to stews, soups and meats. The dried berries were also crushed into a powder and rubbed into meat for flavor. Blueberries were also used for medicinal purposes along with the leaves and roots. A beef jerky called Sautauthig (pronounced saw'-taw-teeg), was made with dried blueberries and meat and was consumed year round.

 

Blueberry Thanksgiving:

During the seventeenth century, settlers from England arrived in the New World to begin colonies. Immediately, they set about clearing the land and establishing farms for they could not rely solely on supplies from England. But the land and the climate were far different from what they left behind. Many early attempts at farming failed.

In the winter of 1620, the Pilgrims established a settlement at Plimoth (spelled Plymouth today). Many perished during the first few months, but those that survived went on to build homes and establish farms. Their neighbors, the Wampanoag Indians taught the settlers new skills that helped them survive. They showed them how to plant corn and how to gather and use native plants to supplement their food supply. One important native crop was blueberries!! The colonists learned from Native Americans how to gather blueberries, dry them under the summer's sun and store them for the winter. In time, blueberries became an important food source and were preserved, and later canned. A beverage made with blueberries was an important staple for Civil War Soldiers. In the 1880s a blueberry canning industry began in the Northeast USA.

Blueberry Terminology: Vacinnium is the family of all blueberries and includes more than 450 plants. . This plant grows wild around the world and there are many names given to different blueberries. For practical and commercialpurposes we concentrate on three different varieties:

 
V. corymbosum. (Northern Highbush) Grow in the forests wild in North America and were used to cultivate the modern highbush or cultivated blueberry industry along with the V. Ashei. (Botanical information)
 
V. ashei. (Southern Rabbiteye). You may be suprised to learn that blueberries thrive in the Southern USA. A variety called the Rabbiteye is named this because the calyx on the berry resembles the eye of the rabbit! (Botanical Information)
 
V. angustifolium. (Lowbush or also called "Wild blueberries." These dwarf bushes are very cold hardy, surviving in the wild as far north as Arctic North America. These Blueberries only reach a height of 1 or 2 feet. and include the low sweet Blueberry (V. angustifolium), which is found from the Arctic to Minnesota and the mountains of New York and New Hampshire, and the sour-tasting velvet-leaf Blueberry (V. myrtilloides), which is found wild throughout New England and west. (Botanical Information)

 

Other Terms: Many different names have been given to the numerous varieties of Vacinnium that produce edible fruits, such as Blueberry, Bilberry, Cowberry, Cranberry, Crowberry; Farkleberry, Lingonberry, Partridgeberry, Huckleberry (not the true Huckleberry, which is Gaylussacia), Whortleberry, and Sparkleberry to mention a few.

 

Information Resource: http://www.botany.com/vaccinium.html

The Improved Blueberry

 

For centuries decades, blueberries maintained popularity in the USA, with a thriving commercial business in the Northeast USA and Canada. An important step in the development of the highbush blueberry industry came in the turn of the century. Efforts in the early 1900's by Elizabeth White and Dr. Frederick Coville to domesticate the wild highbush blueberry resulted in today's cultivated highbush blueberry industry. They selected desirable plants from the wild forests of the Northeast USA and cultivated them to develop blueberries that could be commercially grown by farmers. Their initial breeding work has resulted in the plump, juicy, sweet and easy to pick cultivated blueberry we enjoy today. Without this cultivation work we would not have fresh blueberries in the markeplace as we do today. We encourage you to visit a web site dedicated to the work of Coville and White at the Whitesbog Preservation Trust.

 

Over the decades, plant breeders and pathologists have worked to identify and enhance the desirable features of various cultivars of highbush blueberries. For decades "cultivated" or "highbush" blueberries have been improved through natural selection and plant breeding programs to produce an optimal blueberry with desirable flavor, texture and color for fresh and processed markets. Cultivated varieties have been enhanced to offer magnificent plump berries with deep, rich color and a delicious fruity flavor. These plant breeding programs have resulted in the development of superior berries both for the consumer and the food processing industry. Our industry owes a great gratitude to the many agriculturalists in the USA and abroad who have pioneered the development of the US Highbush Blueberry industry!

 

Growing: North America is the world's leading blueberry producer, accounting for nearly 90% of world production at the present time. The North American harvest runs from mid-April through early October, with peak harvest in July which is also known as National Blueberry Month. Highbush blueberries are perennial, long-lived, deciduous, woody shrubs. They belong to the family Ericaceae, which also includes such plants as cranberry, azalea, rhododendron, and heather. Like the other ericaceous plants, blueberries thrive in acid soils and do best in soils with a pH between 4 and 5. Cultivars require from 120 to 160 growing degree days to ripen fruit. Blueberry plants flower in spring, with flowers at the tip of canes and the tip of the cluster opening first. They are pollinated by bees. Fruit

development occurs for about 2 to 3 months after bloom, depending on cultivar, weather, and plant vigor. Sugar content of fruit will increase during maturation to about 15 percent when fruit is ripe. Yields can be as high as 20 tons per acre (T/A), although yields of 7 to 8 T/A are typical of mature plantings. (growing resource)

 


The Modern Highbush Blueberry Industry

Today, the highbush blueberry is grown commercially in more than 38 states and provinces of Canada. Highbush blueberry industries have also developed in South America, Australia, New Zealand and Europe and according to the United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization, more than 42,000 metric tons are harvested each year. Although the USA and Canada are the largest producers and consumers of blueberries, the market around the world is also on the rise with Japan in particular becoming a blueberry loving nation.

 

The Blueberry industry is segmented into two major market categories.

Fresh Market Blueberries
Processed Market Blueberries

Fresh Blueberries: Delicious fresh blueberries are a summertime treat and tradition in North America. You may now notice fresh blueberries on the shelves year round as well thanks to production in the Southern Hemisphere. About 50 percent of all blueberries produced are dedicated to the fresh market. The harvest starts in Florida in the Early Spring and Ends in British Columbia Canada in October and sometimes later. Blueberry are grown in rows that are cultivated year round to produce sweet and plump berries. When the berry is a deep blue color, the blueberries are carefully hand picked and rushed to nearby packing houses. They are chilled, and rushed to markets in nearby cities and off to air fright around the world. In fact, did you know that the North American Industry ships more

than 100 metric tons of fresh blueberries each year to Iceland, and more than 500 metric tons to Japan. The blueberries are packed in plastic trays of different sizes and are normally in your market within hours of harvest! In the winter -- you will find fresh blueberries from South America and Australia and New Zealand which are air freighted across the globe to your local market. (Take a photo tour of a blueberry operation) Feel like picking your own blueberries? A number of blueberry farmers open their farms to what are called U-pick operations. Check out our U-pick Page for details on pick your own blueberries!

Canned  Frozen  Dried  Liquid

Processed Blueberries:

Blueberries are processed in a number of different forms for availability year round and as ingredients for the food processing industry. Blueberry fields are grown in long straight rows and the plants are trained into shapes that fit harvesting. Although some processed blueberries are hand picked, a majority are mechanically harvested with specially designed blueberry harvesters. There are several varieties, but for the most part the concept

is simple: A machine is driven or towed through the field and mechanical rods shake the plants to drop the blueberries into buckets or conveyors. The machines must go through the field art different times as blueberries do not ripen at the same time. Bins of harvested blueberries are rushed to nearby processing plants where they are dedicated to different market channels.

Canned Blueberries:

Blueberries are packed in water or syrup or are prepared into shelf stable pie fillings and sauces. (technical specifics)


Frozen:

Ripe blueberries are immediately frozen in a number of methods. (technical specifics)

 

Individually Quick Frozen Blueberries (IQF), are flash frozen at extremely low temperatures. This gives the blueberry an individual fruit identity.  This product is packed into cello bags for the retail market or else packed in poly lined cardboard containers for the food industry. (ie baking confectionery, ice creams.)

 
Block Frozen Blueberries (BQF).  Blueberries are placed in containers and then are frozen.  This product is used for food processing where fruit identity is not required.


Dried
:  Fresh or frozen blueberries are dehydrated in a number of methods to produce a dried fruit for the retail snack and also food processing industry. (technical specifics)

 
Dried Blueberries.  Fresh or frozen blueberries re dehydrated with hot air to reduce the moisture level to around 18%.  Most dried blueberries are first infused with a sugar solution to give it more weight and pliability.
 
Osmoticaly Dried Blueberries.  Blueberries are infused with a syrup to push out moisture in what is called an osmotic dehydration process.  The product is shelf stable and moist.
 
Freeze Dried.  Blueberries are quick frozen and dehydrated to get moisture down to around 2-4%.  The freeze dried blueberry maintains its shape and color and is ideal for cereals and snack foods.
 
Drum Dried.  Blueberries and blueberry juice is dried and tumbled in hot air to produce a blueberry powder. 
 
Specialty Products - Blueberries are showing up in more and more specialty food products because they add value and are in consumer demand!    Check out the list of specialty products that contain real blueberries.  (real products)

 
Liquid: Blueberries are processed into a number of liquid forms for use in beverages and dairy products. This includes single strength blueberry juice, blueberry purees and concentrates of different brix levels. (technical specifics)
   
Usage: Everyone loves blueberries. Each day, while new research is introduced on the goodness of this little fruit, they are becoming more and more popular. Today, blueberries are available year round as blueberries and also as products containing blueberries.
Fresh Blueberries - Fresh blueberries are available year round form your local grocer. If they are not available -- ask for them! (harvest schedule)
Frozen Blueberries - Frozen IQF blueberries are available year round in your freezer case. Yes, they do contain the beneficial vitamins and minerals of the fresh berry as well as beneficial antioxidants and phytochemicals.
Blueberry- Containing Products -- Blueberries are used in hundreds of products ranging from the traditional pies to new sauces and and entrees. Make sure to look for real blueberries in these products as there are imposters out there! Check out the USHBC products section to see some great real blueberry products available in your store! (products)
Export Usage - Blueberries are everywhere. From Iceland to Japan, consumer demand is sky high as information on the health and nutrition benefits of blueberries is received and understood. The blueberry industry has experienced explosive growth in the export markets, and new products are proliferating. Some of these product ideas are finding their way back tot he USA and are stimulating new product development in North America. Check out our gallery of blueberry- containing products from around the world! (view international products)
Specialty Products - Blueberries are showing up in more and more specialty food products because they add value and are in consumer demand! Check out the list of specialty products that contain real blueberries. (real products)
 

Marketing:  

The US Highbush Blueberry Council actively promotes the consumption of highbush or cultivated blueberries.  Activities are funded by an assessment from blueberries grown in the USA and those imported into the USA.  (USHBC background)  Contact your local blueberry supplier for prices, availability and commercial discussions.

Sales and distribution of blueberries is conducted by individuals, companies and firms.

 
Growers and farm sales and u-pick farms.
 
Cooperative organizations
 
Blueberry growers processors handlers and packers
 
Food Brokers and Sellers and distributors including foodservice and bakery suppliers.
 
Exporters, importers and traders

USDA Blueberry Production Information

Check out the "Commodity Highlight" in Fruit and Tree Nuts Outlook/FTS-305/July 30, 2003, p. 12-16.


 

The New Frontier!

 

Blueberries are becoming more and more popular each day as new research discloses the health and nutrient benefits.  Visit the USHBC web site Health and Nutrition to view the very latest news on the goodness of blueberries!  (health page)


Learning Center:  
 
Food History Timeline, Morris County Library.  A timeline of food gathering and preparation.  (view)
 
Native American Ethnobotany Database, U. of Michigan Dearborne. Features a searchable database of medicinal ues of plant substances (including blueberries) in North America.  (visit)
 
USDA, Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Database.  The most comprehensive data base on health benefits of plant substances.  (visit

 

 
 

Copyright 2002 - U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council