By Lauri deGaris
Blueberries are native to North America and can be found in every state. Historically, blueberries have been harvested for various uses over thousands of years. Indigenous people valued blueberries as a food and as a gift. Blueberries were known as “Starberries” to some northern indigenous tribes. The blossom at the end of the berry, the calyx, forms the shape of a perfect five-point star. The elders of the Maine Schoodic people share stories of the Great Star Nation spirits who sent Starberries to the children during times of need.
The historical record describing blueberry use in Florida pre-dates European arrival. The Seminole Indians harvested blueberries for various uses. The roots of owisa (blueberries) were boiled by the Seminoles and the infusion used to treat someone who is out of their head, talking and behaving erratically. Decoctions of leaves and the bark of roots were used to treat sore throats. A drink made from the berry was used to treat chronic dysentery. Blueberry juice was also used to make dye for cloth. The hard, close-grained wood of the blueberry plant made good tool handles as well. Indigenous people understand how blueberries connect us to the land and that they provide for us in many ways.
In nature, few plants produce colors of blue and those that do have special significance. Culturally speaking, when we want to place value on something, we insert “blue” into the name. Thus, a blue ribbon for first prize, a blue-ribbon committee, and profitable, blue-chip stocks, as examples. Blueberry is the perfect name for this supernatural plant and it too has special meaning in many cultures. Some cultures believe that for spiritual protection, you should place blueberry leaves beneath the doormat to keep undesirables away from your property. Eating blueberries will provide protection inside you, preventing negative attacks on your body. That sounds an awful lot like what doctors tell us today: eat blueberries – the antioxidants will help protect your body.
There are several blueberry farms locally where we can make a connection with the land by picking berries. For me, picking blueberries is much more than simply picking fruit, it is an act that cleanses my body and soothes my soul.
I was picking berries after a spring shower one year. The rain cleansed the air leaving behind a fresh, earthy scent. The fruit was ripe and easy to pick. As I gathered berries, I listened to the conversations of fellow pickers. Then, I imagined what the conversation of those picking berries 5,000 years ago would have been about. Perhaps they spoke of family matters, seasonal weather patterns, ceremonies, or famine. I kept picking berries and listened to the birds singing and bees buzzing. The day was hot and the humidity high. Not only was my soul being fed by the experience of being outside, I was physically purifying myself. Sweat gathered on my skin and dripped from my forehead. By the time I finished picking berries in nature’s sauna, my shirt was soaked. I gathered my berries and made way home. After a cool shower and a glass of blueberry ice tea, I felt wonderful. That night, I had a very sound sleep.
Another blueberry tale worth sharing is about the day I visited Bugtussle on Jacksonville’s northside, many years ago. Bugtussle is the name of the Spencer family land on which blueberries grow in earnest. Sue Spencer invited me to Bugtussle to pick blueberries, sip homemade blueberry wine and hear stories about her wild, worldly adventures. Sue was the author of several best-selling books including “African Creeks I’ve Been Up.” Published in 1964, the book chronicled her life in Sierra Leone raising three sons while her husband worked for a mining company. Sue Spencer had a great sense of humor and quick wit. She lived to be 97 years old. I am grateful for the opportunity to have spent an afternoon with Sue at Bugtussle. The pleasure was indeed all mine.
The Spencer family land, Bugtussle is now Bogey Creek Preserve and part of 7 Creeks Recreation Area on Jacksonville’s northside. You can read more about Bogey Creek Preserve at: https://www.nflt.org/bogey-creek-preserve/.
The local blueberry season is underway in North Florida and South Georgia. Your chance to make a connection with the land and gather blueberries will end by late June or early July. Put on an old pair of closed toed shoes, wear a thin, long sleeve shirt, grab your hat and head out to the nearest farm to pick blueberries. Remember to bring an empty cooler to keep your berries nice and cool on the ride home. The following blueberry farms are located close by and open to the public for U-pick.
The Blueberry Ranch852042 U.S. Highway 17, Yulee, FL 32097 904-415-0337
Morning Belle Farms: https://www.morningbellefarms.com
762 Pine Dr., Woodbine, GA 31569 912-510-6528
Vacuna Farms: http://www.vacunafarmsblueberries.com/
403 Vacuna Rd., Kingsland, GA 904-583-2821
History is the tapestry of life woven out of nature.