Vaccinium

by Sarah West

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Blueberry bushes are one of those generous plants that lend superior charm to each season of the garden. In winter, their stems turn cranberry red as the temperature drops, accenting evergreen plantings with sparse but vibrant color. Their spring bloom occurs alongside leaf emergence, when clusters of bell-shaped flowers and bright green leaves seem the definition of exuberant freshness. Their prodigious summer fruits pull us into the garden for breakfast forays and evening snacking. In autumn, their foliage blazes in electric reds and oranges, offering some of the most impressive fall color available to maritime northwest gardens.

As a food, we adore them. We can spend an afternoon popping them into our mouths for their crunch, their juicy dark sweetness and hint of sour. Rub a blueberry on your sleeve and the epicuticular wax, known as the “bloom,” will give way to polished midnight. Heat them in a pan and this powerful pigment stains their yellowish flesh into a deep, silky sauce.

The pleasure of a backyard blueberry bush is a relatively recent phenomenon, having been successfully domesticated less than a century ago. A member of the genus Vaccinium, most garden blueberries are cultivars of the Northern highbush blueberry, a species indigenous to the eastern United States.

Wild patches of Vaccinium corymbosum were a popular July destination both before and after European contact, when locals would pick them for eating and preserving. In the early 1900’s, Elizabeth Coleman White, the daughter of a cranberry farmer in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, collaborated with botanist Frederick Coville to seek out and refine wild selections for commercial production.

White employed the help of experienced local pickers to locate desirable specimens, paying $2 a bush for plants with large berries and good flavor. Dozens of prospects were delivered and, with the help of Coville’s research on blueberry culture, the first cultivars were brought into production by 1916.

In Maine and eastern Canada, another species, Vaccinium angustifolium, the lowbush blueberry, was also domesticated, though propagation attempts were unsuccessful. Lowbush blueberries spread by rhizomes and do not easily transplant. Rather than propagate them in fields, growers learned to cultivate existing patches, encouraging their spread by removing competing plants and keeping them productive through field burning or mowing every few years. Lowbush blueberries are marketed as wild blueberries since they are not technically planted, though they are intensively managed and machine harvested.

Edible berry producing Vaccinium species are also found in the western U.S., most notably the huckleberry, an enigmatic force that captivates those who know it. Huckleberry species populate nearly every type of ecosystem in the Pacific Northwest, from coastal rainforests to subalpine meadows. All are edible and have nutritional value, some are bland or dry and best eaten cooked, others make a tangy (but miniscule) snack. Two species, V. membranaceum and V. deliciosum incite delirium and crazed obsession.

I knew the obsession long before I tasted a fresh huckleberry. As we drove from Wisconsin to Oregon with all of our belongings squeezed into a rented minivan, we noticed cafes and gift shops dedicated to them, exclamations of “huckleberry shakes!” dotting the interstate through Montana and Idaho. We smothered our pancakes with huckleberry syrup and drove on.

Since huckleberries don’t exist where I grew up, I’d never seen one. I had no particular reason to seek out a picture, no reason to go picking them. Living in eastern Oregon for a couple of years, their reputation eventually surfaced in our consciousness as we heard talk of people hoarding ice cream buckets full in the freezer. We saw the fire in their eyes when they spoke of them, and began to get curious.

Driving into the mountains one particularly scorching August day, we rolled our windows down to let in the cool forest air as we slowly gained elevation. After a few minutes, we both detected a fragrance we’d never noticed before: caramel sweetness tinged with a rich liqueur that beckoned us to scan the slopes for its source. We didn’t see anything blooming, but as the scent grew stronger, our eyes narrowed in on an abundance of reddish-blue berries dangling from the shrubby undergrowth. Could it be? We finished our ascent to the campground and saw the same shrubs filling the spaces between sites, folks crouched amongst them, dropping berries into large containers.

My first taste of a huckleberry, perched on the forest floor surrounded by its opulent scent, was transformative. Nothing has caught me so off guard as that unassuming little fruit: explosive, precise and extraordinary, tasting like the dream of itself. For a moment, picking and eating, I felt like I had somehow arrived on Mt. Olympus itself, that I was sitting in the land of the gods, where everything is just a little grander than its counterpart on earth, sneaking a taste of their favorite fruit.

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