The subtle sweetness of these deep-blue berries takes center stage when eaten by the fistful but also marries beautifully with other flavors.
Credit: Photo: Oxmoor House

SEASON: Growing from Florida to Maine and west to Washington, blueberries vary greatly in type. Ripening times range from spring to late summer. Although they are shipped and sold fresh in groceries, local markets are always best and reasonably priced.

CHOOSING: Look for plump berries that are dark blue with a light blue frosting. Green or pink berries are not ripe, except for the pink varieties. Many farms market their berries to customers who enjoy picking their own, so you can also look for U-pick operations in your area.

STORING: Do not wash blueberries before storing them. Place them in a plastic or perforated produce bag in the vegetable bin of your refrigerator.They will be good for 7 to 10 days.

GROWING: Because most regions have blueberry varieties that are well adapted, many people are able to make blueberry shrubs part of their home landscape design.

Plants lose their leaves in winter, but only after a wonderful display of fall color, making them a multi- season asset that produces spring flowers, summer fruit, and fall foliage.

Blueberries thrive in acidic soil that’s loose, well drained, and rich in organic matter such as compost. Much like your beloved rhododendrons, holly, or azaleas, a few fruits such as blueberries thrive when grown in soil with a pH less than 7. They also need a full-sun location. Select a variety that’s suited for your area of the country. Sunshine Blue, Chippewa, Polaris, and Northsky are compact blueberry plants for small gardens and containers. For the best in-ground varieties, consult your local Cooperative Extension. For berry picking all summer, plant early, mid-, and late- season varieties for continual harvest. It’s important to plant two or three varieties to ensure good pollination and fruitful harvests.[pagebreak]

Of all the popular summer fruits, blueberries have a distinct advantage, nutritionally speaking. They've earned the distinction of one of the most potent source of antioxidants, which help counteract heart disease, cancers, and other types of illnesses

Blueberries are also full of fiber and high in vitamin C. To pick the best of the crop, look for powder-blue berries that are firm and uniform in size. Store them-in a single layer, if possible-in a moisture-proof container for up to five days, and don't wash until you're ready to use them.

Two Types of Berries
Cultivated, or high-bush, blueberries are what you see in the produce sections of grocery stores. They are grown on tree-sized shrubs all over the country. Wild, or low-bush, berries grow on sprawling, ankle-high shrubs. These berries are about one-third the size of the cultivated ones. They are firmer, tangier, and more complex in flavor. In a field of wild blueberries, dozens of varieties grow-so you end up with a potpourri of sweet and sour tastes.

Blueberries in Recipes
Most of our recipes call for fresh or frozen wild blueberries. You can also substitute an equal amount of fresh grocery-store berries (high-bush blueberries). If using frozen wild blueberries, you can often toss them in without thawing. But in baked recipes, frozen berries will often discolor the batter, and fresh will not. The taste in this application is pretty much the same.

While frozen blueberries work well in many recipes, there are times when only fresh will do. For example, when eating with cold cereal, tossing into fruit salad, or incorporating in pies, turn to fresh blueberries, whose texture and moisture content are ideal.

Nutritional Standouts
One of the few native American fruits, blueberries have long been considered plenty tasty, if not nutritional standouts. But now researchers have learned that berries are as healthful as they are delicious. In fact, of 43 fruits and vegetables tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1997, blueberries ranked number one in antioxidants.

It may be the blue in blueberries that makes them such nutritional powerhouses. Anthocyanins, which give the berry its pleasing hue, are phytochemicals, which may combat the free-radical damage linked to cancer and heart disease. A 1999 study by Tufts University researchers published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that the phytochemicals in blueberries might also counteract the effects of aging, including waning brainpower. Added to that, researchers at Rutgers University in a 1998 study found blueberries, like cranberries, help fend off urinary tract infections. These antioxidant attributes can be found in both types of blueberries, but the wild blueberry scores higher in antioxidants than its cultivated cousin, according to a study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Growing Availability
Maine produces 98 percent of this country's wild blueberries-the most in the world, in fact. The bushes love the state's acidic glacial soil. They are happiest in the lean soil of down east Maine, particularly in the barrens just north of Columbia Falls. Here bushes ramble over thousands of acres, making for an uncharacteristically open horizon in New England's deep woods.

Wild blueberries don't show up in local produce sections outside of New England because the season is so short, and 99 percent of the fruit ends up in other products, such as yogurt and muffins. But that's about to change.

There is a big push to get the berries in grocery stores across the country year-round, but in the freezer aisle, not the produce section. The berries freeze well because they have very low water content. In Maine, people are known to eat the frozen berries right out of the bag, pile them on waffles, mix them into hot oatmeal, or combine them with cream for instant blueberry ice cream. (The cream firms up as soon as it comes into contact with the frozen berries.) "There is no fruit that freezes better," says John Sauve, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Association of North America.

Check your local supermarket's freezer case for frozen wild blueberries. If you don't see them there, you can order frozen berries directly from Wyman's, or 800-341-1758.