Blueberries, of which there are many varieties, are perennials native to North America. Highbush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum), so-called because they are found on shrubs that can reach as high as 12 feet (4 meters), are found in the eastern part of North America, including the Great Lakes region. This variety is the most common kind cultivated for commercial purposes. Not only a healthy food (supplying good amounts of Vitamin C and fiber), blueberries are also delicious, amenable to dishes both sweet and savory.
When I think of blueberries, I think of Michigan. I also think of scones and muffins and pies and tarts, but yes, I think of Michigan, too. Indeed, Michigan is the top blueberry-producing state in the US (in terms of acres harvested), with Georgia, Oregon, and New Jersey following behind. Traditionally, blueberries grew well in humid climates with chilly winters and milder summers, although some hybrids have been developed that can be grown in warmer climates (hence the Georgia blueberries). Fine, but just give me Michigan blueberries!
Why Michigan? Specifically, why southwestern Michigan (the locus of the commercial blueberry industry in Michigan)? Well, it boils down to physical geography—the soils are acidic, important for blueberry health. Blueberries prefer soils in the 4.0-5.0 range, which this part of Michigan can supply. Additionally, the temperatures are low enough for blueberries (winters can get mighty cold), yet are moderated by the waters of Lake Michigan1; the lake waters also serve to keep the spring temperatures cooler longer, which helps blueberry plants avoid frost damage (they bloom later). A third reason is the soils of southwest Michigan are somewhat sandy and wet—remember from your geography classes that this region is proximate to Lake Michigan, so one would expect some sandiness in the soil. This hat trick gives southwestern Michigan a prime spot for commercial blueberry agriculture. Indeed, Michigan’s Blueberry Country is centered on the five southwestern lake-hugging counties of Allegan, Berrien, Muskegon, Ottawa, and Van Buren. Drive through them and you are sure to encounter neat rows of muffin futures!
- Van Buren
Oddly, the blueberry industry actually began in New Jersey, where Elizabeth White, in partnership with Dr. Frederick Coville, a USDA botanist, developed a cultivatable blueberry plant. In Michigan, the commercial industry took off after the 1920s, following a successful test planting at Michigan State University. Blueberry farming has increased almost tenfold from 1950, when 2200 acres were devoted to blueberry cultivation; as of 2012, approximately 21,000 acres hold commercial blueberry plants.2
I, for one, am thankful for this deliciousness. A latecomer to The Pleasures of the Blueberry, I now look forward to the time I can get Michigan blueberries in the supermarket (and I do wait for the season). I eat them out of hand, I cook with them, can with them, bake with them, and freeze them for some wintertime smoothies (and I’m almost out of the ones I froze last year!) I’ll be sharing some blueberry recipes next time here on Flyovertapas. In the meantime, if you’d like to can some blueberry jam (and blueberries do have a fair amount of pectin), just follow the recipe for classic strawberry jam, replacing the strawberries with blueberries.
1Meteorology/climatology tidbit: large bodies of water keep the temperatures in adjacent land areas milder than temperatures in the middle of large land masses far from water. Coastal locations tend to have smaller annual temperature ranges (difference between the warmest and coldest months) than locations in the interior of land masses. That’s a phenomenon called continentality, a fact you can impress others with at your next cocktail party.
2http://blueberries.msu.edu/uploads/files/The_Michigan_Blueberry_Industry_2012_MSUE_online.pdf. This is an excellent source of information about the industry in Michigan.