One summer when I was just barely old enough to be working, our boss sent us over to the low bushes to pick the smallest blueberries growing in the field. This was not a primo assignment. It took a lot longer to fill a pail with those tiny berries than it did the berries on the highest bushes where the big kids were. (And, of course, we were paid by the pail).
It wasn’t until I moved to Maine that I learned this maxim: the smaller the berry, the bigger the taste, especially when it comes to wild Maine blueberries.
“If you have to ask which is better, you’ve never tried them,” says Denise Alexander, who owns and operates Alexander’s Blueberries in Greenfield, which sits about 40 minutes northeast of Bangor, on the edge of the blueberry barrens of Down East Maine.
As I write this in early August, the Alexanders are in the middle of their annual harvest of wild Maine blueberries. It’s an event that draws people from far and wide to the farm – either to grab a rake and pick some berries, or to pick up their eagerly awaited boxes of berries (Alexander’s doesn’t ship because, well, they don’t have to.)
“I have one customer who drove up from Boston for 14 boxes,” says Alexander. “I’ve got another customer who bought a freezer for his wife just for our berries.”
Denise and her husband Jim bought the farm and the blueberry fields from Jim’s parents, Jim and Rosalie, who still oversee the pick-your-own part of the harvest. This is only Alexander’s fourth year harvesting the 35-acre fields. Actually, only half the field, is harvested, since lowbush blueberry management practices dictate that growers mow their fields flat every other year (the prune year) to let the bushes re-establish themselves. The Alexanders split their field in half to facilitate this.
According to growers, that’s one reason why lowbush berries taste so good. As the blueberries re-establish themselves, root systems intermingle and produce distinct, genetically different plants. David Yarborough, the blueberry expert with the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension Service, says there are actually 6.5 million distinct blueberry strains in Maine’s blueberry barrens. To use Yarborough’s math, a field the size of Alexander’s might have between 1,500 to 2,000 different blueberry clones, each with its own slightly different flavor. The mixing of sweet and tart in one mouthful explains why many people describe Maine blueberries as having a citrusy taste.
“I‘ve gotten to recognize the ones I like by the color,” says Alexander.
Her favorite is the lighter blue (as opposed to the dark blue, or the deep purple, or the red.)“They get sweeter as the season progresses.”
The farm, which faces the mountains of western Maine and offers incredible views, has been in Rosalie’s family for several generations.
“My mother-in-law worked as a child in the fields,” Alexander says. “I wish I knew how far back in time the family farm goes.”
How far back the wild blueberries go also explains their allure. As the history books inform, wild blueberry bushes started showing up when the glaciers receded thousands of years ago. Native Americans started the practice of burning the barrens to re-establish them. The lowbush fields the Alexanders are now tending might have been a Native American crop.
Native Americans supposedly used blueberries as medicine, and these days they are touted for having more antioxidant properties than their high-bush cousins. The fact that there is more blueberry skin in a pint of tiny berries contributes to that statistic, but they also may be healthier than your average blueberry because there is less of a need for pesticides. Only a few pests seem to bother wild Maine blueberries, so the Alexanders do not spray their berries with any pesticides. They aren’t considered organic because the Alexanders use an herbicide in the non-growing years to keep the fields from being overrun with weeds.
During their short season, the Alexanders typically spend one day harvesting and the next day (from early morning to late at night) boxing them up. They expected to exhaust the harvest by the middle of August, but their berries, and those of other low-bush growers, will be showing up in quart containers and in the form of pies, muffins and cakes at farmers markets and at the state’s many county fairs well into September.
“They freeze really well,” says Alexander, adding that some recipes are just as well served by frozen berries as they are fresh.
“The rain at night and the sunny days has made this a good year,” says Alexander. “They taste so good this year – but I’m a little partial.”