wild blueberries

How To Identify, Harvest, and Pick Wild Blueberries: The Ultimate Guide

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wild blueberries

There’s something magical about the first wild blueberries of the season! They’re small, but the flavor is so intense and unique. Foraging for blueberries is a great way to spend time in nature and connect with it. The more you learn about them, the easier they will be to identify and find. 

This article provides tips and techniques to teach you how to find, identify and pick wild blueberries! I will teach you the basics of foraging these sweet summer fruits and explain some of the best places to look as well as how to tell them apart from other berries.  We will also discuss safety concerns, harvesting, and storage practices.

Interested in other wild edible plants to forage? Check out our page on foraging and wildcrafting. 

Introduction to Wild Blueberries

Native to New England forests, blueberry bushes grow very well in our region and are known for their sweet, juicy taste and as a great source of antioxidants. Although they are smaller than cultivated blueberries, wild blueberries grow in profusion and can be found in many parts of the United States.

The berries are very small and have a more intense flavor than cultivated blueberries. They have a short growing season that lasts from July through August depending on the climate where they grow. The fruit is ready when it turns from green to blue or purple-blue.

Wild blueberries are a great source of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. They are also low in calories and contain no cholesterol or saturated fat. Wild blueberries are one of the richest sources of dietary fiber, which helps lower cholesterol levels and aids digestion. They are also rich in phytochemicals that may prevent cancer, heart disease, and other chronic diseases.

There are two types of blueberry plants that I have found growing wild near me on my foraging walks: highbush (Vaccinium corymbosum) and lowbush (Vaccinium angustifolium).  It is the lowbush variety that is called the wild blueberry, but it is not uncommon to find the highbush growing wild in the woods next to the lowbush variety.  This was the case in my recent foraging adventure.  

Often, both the wild high-bush and low-bush blueberries can be found right at the edge of many of Connecticut’s lakes and ponds, sometimes on public state forest or state park lands and often conveniently found on the sides of hiking trails, making them the perfect trail-side snack. 

Native Americans ate wild blueberries long before Europeans arrived in North America. In fact, wild blueberries were one of the first foods eaten by Europeans when they landed here 500 years ago.

wild blueberries

Identifying Wild Blueberries (the lowbush variety)

First, you should check out how tall the blueberry shrub is. Wild blueberry shrubs are generally between 6 to 12 inches tall. Pay attention to where the shoots grow. Blueberry bushes have canes that grow right from the soil. These canes are smooth and don’t have any thorns.

Blueberries have leaves that grow on woody branches. The leaves are either stalkless or on very short petioles.  Blueberry leaves should be green or green with a blue hue, with a glossy finish. They usually take on red hues in the fall, though. Blueberry leaves are ovate in shape.

In the spring, wild blueberry plants grow clusters of small white to pink flowers on thin twigs. Each flower comprises five petals fused together into an urn or bell shape. The familiar berries are round and dark blue to almost black, often with a coating of a powdery white bloom on their skins. The tell-tale sign that you’ve definitely found wild blueberry is the presence of a five-pointed calyx or crown on one end.

Note: Highbush blueberry can grow to be as tall as 12 feet, although it is most commonly about half that height. You’ll often find the highbush variety in the same location as the lowbush along with its look-alike cousin the huckleberry. 

wild blueberries
Cultivated Blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum)

How Wild Blueberries Differ From Regular Blueberries (Cultivated)

Wild blueberries are a bit smaller and more compact than regular (cultivated)  blueberries. They also have less water content, so you get more wild berries per pound than regular ones. They taste sweeter, tangier and more intense than standard blueberries.

Wild low-bush blueberries are also more brain healthy, providing 33% more anthocyanins and 2x the antioxidant capacity of ordinary blueberries. They’re the berry health-conscious bodies and brains crave!

 

In his essay "Wild Fruits," Henry David Thoreau argued that New England's wild berries were just as good as the fruits of the tropics. He wrote, "I would not exchange fruits with them; for the object is not merely to get a ship-load of something which you can eat or sell, but the pleasure of gathering it is to be taken into account."

wild blueberries
Wild Blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium)

Where and When to Gather

Blueberries are native to North America and thrive in acidic, fairly dry, gritty soil. They grow best in mountainous areas as well as pine barrens. They ripen between July and August. 

Picking berries in the morning is best, when the weather is mild and the countryside quiet.

How to Gather

I gather blueberries by hand, either into a container placed on the ground or into a coffee can punctured with two holes, strung with twine, and hung around my neck.  The latter is my favorite as it allows my hands to be free while still having easy access to the gathering container. There are also gathering bags sold commercially that can be fastened to your belts or worn like a backpack but on your front. Some people like to use blueberry rakes but I’m not convinced that the time spent removing leaf debris makes this method worth the effort.

shortcake biscuits
Blueberry Shortcake With Vanilla Custard Pastry Cream and Fresh Wild Blueberries

How to Eat

You can use wild blueberries the same way you would cultivated varieties, although you can expect a superior flavor. Wild blueberries are delicious fresh, but they also make excellent preserves and pies. They can also be cooked with local wild spices such as spicebush to make an accompaniment for pork, duck, or game meats. 

Here is my favorite recipe for wild blueberries: Blueberry Shortcake: The Most Amazing Blueberry Dessert (pictured above). This recipe adds a twist to the traditional blueberry shortcake recipes that you usually find by adding a creamy layer of vanilla custard pastry creamthat takes less than 5 minuted to make. 

blueberry dessert
Frozen Blueberries and Blueberry Preserves

How to Preserve Wild Blueberries

Freezing Blueberries

Wild blueberries are best frozen immediately after being picked. Do not wash them first. If you do, they will burst open and turn mushy when frozen. The easiest way to freeze wild blueberries is to spread them out on a cookie sheet and freeze them before bagging them up in freezer bags. Do not thaw the berries before using them in cooking or baking. Freezing them in a single layer keeps the berries from clumping together in the freezer bag. 

Drying  Blueberries

To dry blueberries, start by blanching them to soften the skins. Bring a pot of water to a boil, turn off the heat, and immediately add the blueberries. Leave the berries in the hot water for 30-60 seconds, then drain them in a colander. 

Next, place them in a dehydrator at 135°F (57°C) for 8 to 18 hours. Time will vary with each dehydrator, size of berries and with temperature and humidity levels in your house.

wild blueberries
black huckleberries

Wild Blueberry Look-alikes

Blueberries are not the only berries that resemble blueberries. Huckleberries, bilberries, serviceberries, and deerberries also look like this fruit. However, some of these berries are poisonous. These berries include nightshades (belladonna), pokeweed seeds, and Virginia creeper berries.  It’s important to be 100% confident of your identification before attempting to forage for berries. 

Health Benefits of Blueberries

Blueberries have many uses. You can eat them raw or cooked, and either way, you’ll get these amazing health benefits. Here are some health benefits these tiny but powerful berries have. 

  • They’re loaded with antioxidants.
  • They’re chock-full of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, K, manganese, and potassium.
  • They’re good for your heart and may reduce your risk of cancer.
  • They’re good for your memory because they slow down the aging of your brain.
  • They can help manage blood sugar levels and reduce high blood pressure.

Concluding Thoughts

There is something very rewarding about getting out in nature and foraging for food. It reminds us where our food actually comes from, and helps us to become self-sufficient rather than allowing us to rely solely grocery store. Many edible plants and fruit can be safely foraged and harvested; it just takes some knowledge of what is safe to eat and what is not. Take the time to educate yourself about wild edibles, and you will be able to better identify and harvest them in the future!

Blueberries are one such fruit and are a tasty treat when in season. If you want to find your own, then follow the tips in this article to learn how to locate blueberries, distinguish them from other berries, and find out how to harvest and store them. By using this information, you can then enjoy the berries all summer long or preserve them for the winter. So go get some blueberries!

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 The information provided throughout this site is for educational purposes only and is not to be regarded as substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. The information provided is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Always seek the guidance of your qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition.

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