Many people are working to restore the native, fire-maintained, longleaf pine ecosystem of the southeastern, US. Land managers and locals with some botanical skills know one of the important plant families contributing to the wonderful diversity of the longleaf ecosystem is the Heath Family, or Ericaceae.
Across much of the south, a healthy longleaf forest will contain a very diverse community of blueberries and huckleberries, which are two genera of the Heath family. Blueberries are Vacciniums and huckleberries are Gaylusaccias. In a typical lower Coastal Plain longleaf forest that has never been converted to agriculture or subjected to an intensive mechanical or chemical site preparation, it would not be uncommon to observe half of the understory covered with blueberries and huckleberries.
For the last couple of years, we have put my plant identification and foraging skills to use by harvesting wild blueberries and taking them to the Palafox Farmers’ Market in Pensacola, Florida. First to bear is Elliot’s blueberry or Vaccinium elliottii. Elliot’s blueberry is one of the first shrubs to bloom on the Conecuh National Forest and the Blackwater State Forest. You will find native pollinators working Elliot’s blueberry bushes in February and March. The small fruits range from bb size to slightly larger. It takes a long time to acquire a significant volume of Elliot’s blueberries.
Next in line are our low bush blueberries. I believe most of our low bush blueberries are Vaccinium myrsinites. The fruit from low bush are roughly equivalent in size to the Elliot’s blueberry, but the bush is much lower to the ground and sometimes the low bush are much more prolific. A one to two foot tall bush may have a hundred or more bb sized – sweet blueberries. The fruit ranges from almost black, to dark blue, to glaucous light blue berries.
When there is a good crop of Elliot’s and/or low bush blueberries, we harvest what we can. We collect enough to fit in a baby food jar (4 ounces) and pour it into a ziplock snack bag for sale at the farmers’ market. This is a low-wage endeavor.
We do much better when the high-bush start producing. Although there is tremendous variation in the height, foliar, and fruiting characteristics of high-bush blueberry, I believe all of them are the species Vaccinium corymbosum. High-bush are less common in our forest than are the low-bush and Elliot’s blueberry, so I take note anytime I find a stand worth harvesting. We previously collected most of our berries from the Conecuh National Forest in June & July, but the foresters finally got around to burning the stands where we collected most of our berries and it may be a few more years before the bushes recover enough stature to produce harvestable quantities of blueberries.
One high bush-blueberry is equivalent in volume to several Elliot’s or low-bush blueberries. When we find a dense stand of high-bush blueberries, the Hainds family can collect several pints per hour. Last week we collected 51 pints of high-bush blueberry from the Blackwater State Forest. We also had seven pints of wild-collected blackberries (Rubus spp.) and our normal selection of smoking woods, jams, books, and a few potatoes and tomatoes. I thought it may be our best sales day ever, but it was not to be.
Waking at 4:45 AM on Saturday morning, I immediately checked the Pensacola forecast. The Weather Channel predicted wind and rain all day and unfortunately, their prediction was accurate. I arrived at Palafox Street at 7:45 AM and sat in my Jeep until 8:00 before the rain let up enough forme to set up our stand. I made it through the next three hours with precipitation ranging from a light mist to outright downpours.
A scattering of customers wandered through until the lightning started cracking all around. I took shelter in the Jeep as the bottom fell out. Water was running down my side of Palafox Street nearly 1 foot in depth and at a rapid clip. A gust of wind blew over our shelter, bending rods and potentially destroying our canopy frame. Our merchandise got soaked. Instead of making a few hundred dollars, this trip cost at least a couple hundred dollars in damaged goods.
After packing up our waterlogged merchandise, I stopped by a local vegan eatery named “The End of the Line Café”. A friend, Christian Wagley had suggested they might pick up some of our wild-collected blueberries. Like several other businesses and houses downtown, the End of the Line Café had been flooded. Although they had a “Closed” sign in the window, they bought a dozen pints of blueberries to use for the coming week. Thanks for the tip Christian!
I filled the Jeep with gas, stripped off my soaked clothing, and drove home in my underwear. After a good night’s sleep I prepared a breakfast of blueberry pancakes for Joseph, Katia, and myself. Then I got to work cranking out blueberry jam. I’ve already made 21 jars and I hope to make one or two more batches before I call it a day.