The superfood with a relatively recent history
Story By Bailey Gilliam
One of the few naturally blue foods on Earth, blueberries are versatile fruits that can be served any time of day in sweet or savory dishes. Sprinkle them on pancakes to pack a punch at breakfast, turn them into a sauce for dinner, bake them into a dessert – the list of ways to prepare them goes on and on. So, it’s hard to imagine a world without readily available blueberries. But they were not always the staple fruit we think of today, as they were only cultivated around a century ago. Although they appeared in U.S. markets harvested from wild plants, their distribution was limited. Unlike other fruits originating in areas with long histories of permanent human settlement like Asia, blueberries are native to North America, which humans inhabited much later.
The first cultivated blueberries were not successfully grown until 1912 but were an essential food source for Native Americans for thousands of years. Blueberries can be stored longer than similar berries, making them a critical forage crop that Native Americans dried and stored for winter. The entire plant also served medicinal purposes. In many ways Native Americans directly influenced the development of modern blueberry varieties by passing on their knowledge of blueberries to European immigrants.
Commercial blueberry cultivation began in the 1890s when New Jersey cranberry farmer, Elizabeth White, became interested in the blueberry’s potential as a cultivated crop. Most other growers at the time did not believe they could be domesticated. But in the early 1900s USDA botanist, Frank Coville, began to study blueberries to develop improved varieties for commercial cultivation. In 1911 he published “Experiments in Blueberry Culture,” which White picked up. She contacted Coville, offered acreage on her farm for research and development and partnered with him to lay the groundwork for our modern blueberry varieties.
In the ‘90s scientists deemed blueberries a “super food,” which skyrocketed their production in the U.S., increasing from around 100 million pounds a year to over 500 million pounds in recent years. The next time you enjoy these little blue treasures, consider their exciting history on our continent and give a little thanks to the early innovation of the indigenous people and horticulturists who made it all possible.
What’s in a superfood
Blueberries have been deemed worthy of the super food title due to their vast antioxidant powers. They are believed to have one of the highest antioxidant levels of all fruits and vegetables. These antioxidants protect the body from free radicals that can contribute to cell damage, aging and diseases, benefit the brain by aiding brain function and delaying mental decline and reduce a predominant risk factor for heart disease. But there’s more to these little sweet berries than antioxidants. They are low in calories but high in nutritional value, including fiber, vitamins C and K and manganese. Due to their sweet flavor, they make an excellent snack for those with a sweet tooth, as an entire cup only has 84 calories. Several studies suggest that blueberries and blueberry juice reduce DNA damage, which is the leading driver of aging and cancer. Some evidence indicates that eating foods rich in anthocyanins, like blueberries, reduces the risk of heart attacks and diabetes. In 2019 blueberries became certified as heart-healthy by the American Heart Association.
Berry easy to grow
You are now the only thing stopping you from having fresh blueberries right outside your door. Choose a sunny spot with fertile, well-drained, acidic soil amended with organic matter. The best time to plant them is fall or winter, but they can be grown in containers anytime. You even can mix blueberries into your shrubs. Space the plants three feet apart to create an informal hedge, and keep plants around six feet tall. Be aware that birds love blueberries as much as you do, so you may want to put a net over your plants. Water blueberries deeply by targeting the root area. The fruit’s roots are shallow, making it easier for blueberries to dry. When the top few inches of soil feel dry, you will know it’s time to water again, but you typically need to only once a week.
Keys to success
- Blueberries are typically ready for picking between June and August.
- Patience is key. Don’t rush to pick the berries as soon as they turn blue. Wait a couple of days. When they are ready, they should fall off right into your hand.
- If you plant 2-year-old blueberry bushes, they should start to bear fruit within a year or two. Pick off any flowers that form the first year or two after planting to allow the bush to become established.
It takes all kinds
There are four types of blueberries: highbush, lowbush, hybrid half-high and rabbiteye. In our area rabbiteye and highbush are recommended. In addition to choosing between these two types, you also have different varieties of each. Having two or more varieties provides optimum pollination and produces the most fruit.
Rabbiteye: Grown in the Southeast, rabbiteye varieties are highly adaptable, productive and pest-tolerant. Recommended varieties include Powderblue, Woodard and Brightwell.
Southern highbush: Southern highbush varieties tend to be pickier and harder to grow than rabbiteye, but a few high-quality varieties do well. Among these are Emerald, Windsor and Springhigh.
Whipped goat cheese and blueberry balsamic crostini
This recipe is a delightful appetizer bursting with flavors. The creamy goat cheese is whipped to perfection with heavy whipping cream and a touch of salt, creating a luscious spread. Each bite offers a harmonious balance of creamy, tangy and sweet notes, making these crostinis a delectable treat.
8 ounces goat cheese
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
1 teaspoon salt
10 ounces blueberries
Zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
12 1/2-inch slices French bread
1 clove garlic
 In a bowl, combine goat cheese, heavy whipping cream and salt. Beat with a hand mixer until well combined and smooth. In a small bowl, combine blueberries, lemon zest, lemon juice and thyme and toss until blueberries are coated.  Heat a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Brush the bread slices with butter on both sides. Toast bread in the skillet until golden brown, 2-3 minutes on each side. Gently rub one side of each crostini with garlic.  Spread whipped goat cheese on the crostini, top with blueberries, drizzle with balsamic reduction and garnish with fresh thyme.
This creamy and refreshing blueberry smoothie is made with juice, yogurt, frozen blueberries and banana, all blended into a frosty, healthy drink. This recipe is an easy and delicious way to start your day.
1 1/2 cups apple juice (or substitute any milk)
1 banana, halved
1 1/2 cups frozen blueberries
3/4 cup vanilla Greek yogurt
Fresh blueberries and mint sprigs for garnish, optional
 Place the apple juice, banana, blueberries and yogurt in a blender.  Blend until completely smooth.  Pour into glasses and serve, topped with blueberries and mint if desired.
You only need one bowl to make this easy blueberry muffin recipe with blueberries, flour, sugar, vanilla and vegetable oil. This recipe makes eight large, big-topped muffins, 10 standard muffins or 20-22 mini muffins with moist and tender centers bursting with blueberries and perfectly golden brown tops.
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon for tops
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup canola or vegetable oil
1 large egg
1/3-1/2 cup milk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
6-8 ounces fresh or frozen blueberries
 Heat oven to 400 degrees. For big-topped muffins, line 8 standard-size muffin cups with paper liners. For standard-size muffins, line 10 muffin cups. Fill the remaining cups with 1 to 2 tablespoons of water to help the muffins bake evenly.  Whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Add oil to a measuring cup that holds at least a cup. Add the egg and fill the cup with milk to the 1-cup line. Add vanilla and whisk to combine. Add the wet mixture to the bowl of dry ingredients and use a fork to combine. Fold in blueberries.  Divide the batter between muffin cups. Sprinkle a little sugar on top of each muffin. Bake 15-20 minutes or until tops are no longer wet and a toothpick inserted into the middle of a muffin comes out with crumbs, not wet batter. Transfer to a cooling rack.