Exploring my little piece of the planet

Velvet Leaved Blueberry

or Common Blueberry, Huckleberry
Vaccinium myrtilloides

According to Wildflowers of Alberta by R.G.H. Cormack (Hurtig 1977), there are, “About five very similar, low, healthy shrubs found in Alberta [that] go by the common name of Blueberry, Huckleberry or Bilberry. In fact, they are all so much alike that it is necessary to consult a flora or botanical key to tell them apart.”

So it is very possible that my specific identification for this plant is inaccurate and I would only be too grateful to anyone who could confirm or contradict it.

This delicious berry can distinguished from the dwarf blueberry (V. caespitosum) by its slightly taller and more open form, elliptic, smooth-edged leaves and prominent star-shaped calyx. It is also somewhat easier to pick for pies or jams (or eating on the spot, which is more my habit) since the berries are a wee bit larger and more visible among the leaves.

The blossom end of each berry, the calyx, forms the shape of a perfect five-pointed star; the elders of the tribe would tell of how the Great Spirit sent “star berries” to relieve the children’s hunger during a famine. (source)

As a child, I lived for two years in Newfoundland. One of my fondest memories is going out in a “Four-by-Four” with several families to pick blueberries. We were under instructions to make sure most of the berries went into our tins but that was extremely difficult. Large and juicy, these were temptations far too difficult to resist.

These are not those. Whether it is a matter of a differing species or ecosystems, the blueberries around Swan Hills are much more minute. It is rare to find such dense and burdened shrubs as I remember from Newfoundland; berry-picking is a labour of love.

Often after an acreage of forest has been clear-cut and before the application of devastating herbicides, an abundance of shrubs will spring up, among them several Vaccinium species. With an ear always to the sounds around, one forages a patch with caution. This is also the time of year when bears diligently gorge themselves to put in the necessary stores for the long winter ahead. It is not only humans and bears who appreciate this delectable berry. It is also important to birds, rodents and many insects. Deer will browse on the leaves and twigs. The critters return the favour by dropping the miniscule seeds.

They are pollinated by bees and other insects possibly including the infamous boreal black fly. The plant is host to the larva of the spring azure butterfly. (source)

But pick you must. Beyond the ambrosial flavour, blueberries and other members of the huge Vaccinium family are stong in antioxidants, Vitamin C, manganese and fiber along with many other nutrients. It was one of the most important fruits for boreal dwelling native people, who used the plant in many ways. The berries were preserved with a wide variety of methods for winter food. Berries, stems, leaves and roots were all employed medicinally from cancer treatments to “women’s medicine”. The berry juice was and still can be used as a natural dye.


You might also enjoy my photographic narrative  How to Pick Blueberries in Northern Woods at On and Over the Hills.


Other Resources:

Plants of the Western Boreal Forest & Aspen Parkland by Derek Johnson et al. Lone Pine, Alberta 1995
Wildflowers of Alberta by R.G.H. Cormack. Hurtig, Alberta 1977

USDA Forest Service Fire Effects Information System (FEIS)
Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center (University of Texas)

Native Plant Database

11 responses

  1. Wonderful to see a new post from you, Cindy! I’ve missed exploring your part of the world. And thanks for this trip in search of berries. It has to be one of the great joys in life to gather wild berries, from shrub to fingers to tongue in one simple move. And I love how you bring other creatures to the table, sharing with us the importance these fruits have on their own well-being. Thank you, and hope all is well.

    My very best wishes,

    October 23, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    • Thank you, Julian. The more I study the nature around me, the more I am aware of the interconnectedness of all things. I think it’s important to see things that way. I am enjoying having a little time to indulge this. I have many species I want to write about. I know I have some catching up to do on your blog as well and am looking forward to that.

      October 23, 2011 at 2:11 pm

  2. Welcome back Cindy !

    Informative and interesting post.

    Best wishes, Sybil

    October 23, 2011 at 2:57 pm

    • Many thanks for stopping by Sybil, specially since I have been so neglectful. I can’t seem to manage to get through all the email notices I’ve let pile up, so I suppose I’ll just have to start from scratch.

      October 23, 2011 at 6:15 pm

  3. pixilated2

    Simply lovely! Been missing you, Lynda

    November 1, 2011 at 9:16 am

    • Thank you, Lynda. I just have way too many projects on the go and I can’t seem to give any of them up!

      November 19, 2011 at 11:12 am

  4. Your weaving of personal experience and natural history is lovely, Cindy. Of all the places I’ve picked blueberries, the maritimes has to be the best in my memory, too. And yes, so hard as a kid (especially) to not eat more berries than we pick. I used to have a dog that ate them off the plant as I picked (and for that matter, the cherry tomatoes and beans from the vine in my garden, too!).
    The very best to you! I hope you are having a great fall in your northern abode.

    November 7, 2011 at 8:04 am

    • I’m glad to know it’s not just exaggerated childhood memories that make the Newfoundland berries so special. I chuckled at the thought of your dog eating the berries and vegies. Mine has a good (possibly overly good) appetite, but tends to eschew any vegetation. (Just realized what an interesting word ‘eschew’ is in this context!) My son’s dog, however will eat anything – it doesn’t have to be food. It’s a problem as you can imagine.

      Fall is over here despite what the calendar says. The snow began a week ago and hasn’t quit. The world is transformed and at -20°, I’m still trying to acclimatize.

      November 19, 2011 at 11:18 am

  5. How about some pics of that endless snow Cindy … Bare grass here on the east coast. And rain of course. What a varied climate we have.

    December 9, 2011 at 7:16 am

  6. I’ve missed visiting your blog to get my nature education and lovely photo fix from you. Love these blueberries.

    February 4, 2012 at 9:49 pm

  7. Pingback: How to Pick Blueberries in Northern Woods « On and Over the Hills

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