Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Blueberries and Huckleberries
Nature  Bulletin No, 311-A   September 7, 1968
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

In 1831 in northwestern Wisconsin, the traveler and historian, Henry Schoolcraft, wrote: "Both banks of the river are literally covered with ripe whortleberry -- it is large and delicious. The Indians feast on it. Thousands and thousands of bushels of this fruit could be gathered with little labor. It is seen in the dried state at every lodge. All careful Indian housewives dry it . ., . Pieces of duck were thrown in a large kettle of boiling water, which was thickened with whortleberries for the family supper". Indians and explorers sometimes included these berries in their preparation of pemmican.

Whortleberry from the Anglo-Saxon and Bilberry from the Danish are European names for Blueberries, Fifteen or 20 species of them are found in North America. Most kinds bear fruit in clusters. There are also about 40 species of Huckleberries, all native to North America, but in some parts of the United States the name "huckleberry" is improperly used for both blueberries and true huckleberries. Other people mistakenly believe that blueberries always have blue or bluish fruit, and that all huckleberries are black or purplish black. However, there are dark-colored blueberries, and huckleberries that are distinctly blue, but there is a sure way to tell one from the other: blueberries have a large number of tiny soft seeds, whereas the huckleberries have 10 rather large, bony seeds.

The Black Huckleberry is the most widespread of the many kinds and the only one found in the Chicago region. It is a low-growing shrub, from one to three feet tall. The small stiff oval leaves are very resinous and feel sticky when pinched. Its fruit is spicy and sweet but rather "seedy".

The Highbush, the Lowbush and the Canada Blueberries are also found in a few places near Chicago. These reach their greatest abundance and importance in the other states and the Canadian provinces around the Great Lakes, and in New England. Although only a part of the wild crop is harvested, over three million dollars worth per year is picked and sold -- fresh, canned or frozen. Six wild species are marketed commercially. All kinds require an acid soil.

The highbush blueberry grows in swamps and woodlands and may exceed 15 feet in height. The lowbush and Canada are upland species averaging about a foot high. In nature, the seeds of these low blueberries are spread by birds, mammals and various other ways. They are so variable that no two plants originating from seed are exactly alike. A few attempts have been made to cultivate them but most lowbush blueberry land receives little care except for systematic burning, every third year, which prevents a crop that year but destroys the weeds and the insect pests such as the blueberry maggot.

Within the past 50 years, since the discovery that the wild plants are always associated with a nitrogen-gathering fungus, the highbush blueberry has been cultivated extensively, especially in New Jersey. Dozens of hybrids or varieties have been developed for various qualities such as size, flavor, color, yield, date or ripening and resistance to disease. Some of these berries are almost an inch in diameter. But it was the wild native blueberry that inspired Robert Frost to write.

The blue's but a mist from the breath of the wind."

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