Nova Scotia is the second largest producer of wild blueberries in the world (Maine is number one), and throughout late August and September, when the berries are ripening, harvesters celebrate—Down East style. After long hours of hand-raking, crouched over patches of low-bush berries, it’s time for a party! At the Nova Scotia Wild Blueberry Harvest Festival, folks enjoy all things blue, at events ranging from pancake breakfasts to a pie-eating contest.
So what’s all the celebrating about? Well, as the First Nations peoples knew, this incredible fruit has a lot to offer. They enjoyed both fresh and dried berries and also used them medicinally, to treat coughs and as a relaxant during childbirth. Sometimes they even crushed them to create a dye. Blueberries helped see native and settler alike through tough winters. In 1615, Samuel de Champlain sampled a Native American pudding of blueberries, cornmeal and honey called sautauthig, and during the American Civil War, Yankee troops were supplied with canned wild blueberries.
Not all blueberries are created equal. The wild version is smaller, sweeter and more flavourful than its cultivated cousin, and also has almost twice as much antioxidant capacity—the ability to protect cells from damage. And with every study, there’s more good news. Early evidence suggests blueberries are a powerful anti-inflammatory, and beneficial for heart, brain and urinary tract health.
For many East Coast families, managing and harvesting wild blueberry patches has been a treasured—albeit back-breaking—way of life for generations. Today, only the east coasts of Canada and the U.S. have the perfect terrain and climate to produce them; these regions process and export millions of pounds worldwide. Jennie Dobbs, owner of Morris East restaurant in Halifax, has an intimate connection to wild blues. Her partner’s family runs a third-generation patch in Colchester County, and this summer, her restaurant will be serving wild low-bush blueberries from the farm during the height of the season.
"Low-bush berries have the greatest flavour, and picking them at the juiciest moment is critical for taking customers back to days spent at U-picks," says Jennie. "Nova Scotians grow up picking berries, so they know the flavour of truly ripe ones—a taste unparalleled by the ones sold in most grocery stores."
Although fresh wild blues are only available for a precious few weeks in late summer, frozen and dried are available all year. Now, that’s something we can all celebrate!