On and Over the Hills

"Go as far as you can see; when you get there you'll be able to see farther." ~ Thomas Carlyle

How to Pick Blueberries in Northern Woods

First of all, do not expect to pick enough for multiple quarts of jam in an afternoon. The blueberries that grow in the boreal forest are tiny, very tiny compared to those you might buy in the store or harvest from lush, moist woods closer to the coasts.

Blueberries need sun, moisture and a well-drained bed. They grow in open areas in the forest where the trees have been downed by fire or man. Old burns and road allowances as well as cut-lines and clear-cuts that have not had ‘foliage control’ applied are all good places to look for the low shrubs. At this time of year the colours of the plants can range from an almost spring green through the beginnings of what will become a deep red induced by lengthening days and early frosts. Many are painted with late summer’s verdigris.

Once you have identified  likely environs, resist the urge to keep eyes to the ground – the single-minded hunt for laden bushes. Take some time to get to know the area. Look out at the surrounding forest. Walk into it. The forest floor mosses may be cushiony and  lush or crisp and dry depending on recent rainfall. If the canopy is open enough, you may note reddening leaves of shrubs displaying ripening cranberries for a future excursion. Look up at the mellow autumn blue with the season’s clouds scudding, softly wafting or hovering above gracefully swaying, cone-laden tree-tops.

Scout the area for fresh signs of wildlife. Fresh bear scat may be a sign that you are not the only one inclined to harvest this delectable crop. Smell the autumn rot, the musty fungus and pungent pine bark. Bears, especially grizzlies exude a strong odor too – unpleasant, musty – some describe it as the smell of urine.

Listen to the branches of pine resisting the breeze or rubbing each other as the wind moves leaning trunks against their stronger neighbours. Hear how the shorter days and early frosts have begun to slow the uptake of moisture into deciduous leaves, drying them and modulating the soft slapping sounds of summer to delicate applause.

Turning your gaze to the ground. Survey the ground cover. Compare the relative heights, colours and density of the blueberry bushes that you pass among the welter of undergrowth . Those exposed on rockier earth will be stunted, wizened, barely ankle-height with smaller leaves pockmarked by summer’s hail storms and tiny, sparse berries; their ancient, gnarled forms a testament to their perennial struggle to survive. Near a little cover, perhaps along a mass of leathery Labrador tea on the east side of the forest’s edge, the plants may be more lush, taller, airier, with leaves a slightly lighter green and denser clusters of larger berries. Some swaths may be torn and stripped already; evidence of a grazing bear indiscriminately devouring leaves, fruits and sometimes entire plants, roots included.

Passing clouds turn the tempting berries from a perfect reflection of the soft blue sky to a deep indigo. Upon their departure they allow the sun to reveal the mysteries in woodland shadows, igniting brilliant bunchberries within their rosette of classically ovate leaves, and sparking the fine and feathery seed heads of lissome grasses .

Finally, choose a promising blueberry patch and kneel or sit at the edge. It may be tempting to bend and begin picking, but apart from the strain on your back and knees, you will miss the clusters that hide beneath the interlocking leaves and the intimate feeling of gathering nature around you.  Tenderly lift and separate the woody plant nearest you and inspect its branches, seeking out a promising cluster.

Without haste, gently grasp a spreading stalk with one hand. Place the relaxed fingertips of the other above a soft cluster and gently roll the berries between the tips of fingers and thumb, gingerly releasing the ripe ones. If you are careful, those still hard and pink will tenaciously resist ensnaring.

With a smooth twist of the wrist, guide the berries into your palm for emptying into the bucket with another, opposite twist, or keep them softly cupped to hold and protect them while another cluster is reaped.

Your thoughts may wander and picking may become automated, often speeding up with the result of missed clusters, spilled berries and extra chaff to pick out of the fruit later. Embrace the Zen of concentration. Watch the insects that use the plant or the shelter it provides. See the rusting, spotted leaves. Notice the deep polished blue that appears on each berry as your touch removes the powdery bloom. Focus your attention by directing the occasional ambrosial cluster to your mouth rather than the bucket.

Be aware of the sounds of the forest: was that the crack of a dry branch beleaguered by the gusting wind or one underfoot of an ungulate or bear? Can you hear the irregular thumps of pine cones hitting the forest floor from the squirrel high up who is frantically trying to fill his winter larder? A raven may notice you and crawk in protest or greeting. If a grey jay (or whiskey jack as we call them here) notices you, it will likely hang around close by hoping for a hand-out.  As you move from patch to patch, stretch and breathe and see the life around you.

Leaving some for the plants and some for the wildlife, I picked nearly a litre of unsorted berries in two hours on a recent afternoon with friends along an old road. The robust wind lent only a pleasant breeze to the understory in the forest. Together with the cooling shadows of regal pine and drifting clouds, that breeze moderated the heat of unusually intense fall sunshine, drawing scent from moss and pine. Berry picking, approached appropriately, can be a respite, a cathartic cessation of demanding thoughts, literally a refresher:  re-learning of how to breathe.

More about the Velvet-leaved blueberry (Nature of the Hills)

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16 comments on “How to Pick Blueberries in Northern Woods

  1. Pingback: Velvet Leaved Blueberry « The Nature of the Hills

  2. janechese
    September 16, 2012

    Wonderfully written. I haven’t picked blueberries since I was a kid and pulling them gently off the stems, leaving some for others and one ear open for bears.. If I remember correctly these ones may be small but the taste makes up for lack of size.

    • Cindy Kilpatrick
      September 17, 2012

      Thank you, Jane. The taste is amazing. It’s like all the punch of a big berry is packed into this little one – condensed and strengthened. You must go picking berries again sometime.

  3. Dan Jurak
    September 16, 2012

    Bears… always thinking of surprising bears. That’s me always worrying about that stuff.

    • Cindy Kilpatrick
      September 17, 2012

      It’s not a bad thing to be cautious. Chances are they will avoid you if they know you’re there, but you never want to be too cocky.

  4. pixilated2
    September 17, 2012

    You do not have poison oak, ivy, sumac there? We had some in California, and here in north Alabama you can’t take two steps off the beaten path without being engulfed in it.

    As for the wild berries, I think I would leave them to the bears. Alas, it is my loss! I am too afraid of bears. Trust you to go there, bringing them to me in a wonderfully written post, complete with tales of your adventures, and mouthwatering pictures of your plunder!

    ~ Lynda
    PS: Cindy, you sent me to my dictionary more than once this morning with lissome and ungulate, and this is a good thing. ‘-)

    • Cindy Kilpatrick
      September 17, 2012

      No, Lynda, none of those nasty plants up here. Must be too cold for them. Not many biting insects this time of year, either. The nights are getting too cold. (Occasionally ice-on-the-morning-windshield kind of cold.) As for leaving the berries for the bears – there’s lots to go around, and they’re sooooo good!

      I’m such a word nerd I subscribe to the Visual Thesaurus word of the day. Trouble is, it’s way easier to find the word you want when writing (and I take a loooong time to write a post) than it is when speaking. I don’t sound half as smart when you talk to me. 🙂 I do love words though.

      • pixilated2
        September 17, 2012

        Cindy, I love words too. I also believe that we all sound less “smart” when we communicate in person. Conversing via pen, pencil, or keyboard gives us time for our brain to catch up with what we are trying to convey. Though I do believe that there is an exception in the mode of written communication that will ever catch up to our personal and demanding standards. That would be “texting.” I don’t know how, and I don’t want to know…

        I see its lazy form of short-speak in common usage everywhere now. I am not amused. Gone are capital letters, punctuation, and the ability to spell any word longer than 5 letters, and containing more than two syllables. It is a crime against communication!

        Off my soap box now. ~ L 😉

  5. Jim Rook
    September 22, 2012

    As usual, an entertaining and interesting piece punctuated by pictures that enhance the story. We just recently returned from a trip to the Gunflint area of Minnesota. I chuckled at times, noting the density of the blueberry plants and thought, that it was very obvious that God did not seek the advice of a horticulturist prior to his seeding of the area. Thanks again for another wonderful and timely post.

    • Cindy Kilpatrick
      September 24, 2012

      I often think when I’m in the bush that no horticulturist could possibly plan a layout as seemingly haphazard, yet beautifully successful as the secret garden rooms discovered during a walk in the woods. Thanks for stopping by, Jim. I should be back to browsing soon – September at school is always all-absorbing – I look forward to catching up on your inspiring photography.

  6. bentehaarstad
    November 6, 2012

    Very interesting post. I wrote something similar this autumn, but not with as much information as you, and what we call blueberries actually is billberry I think.. http://bentehaarstad.wordpress.com/2012/09/28/the-last-blueberry/

    • Cindy Kilpatrick
      November 6, 2012

      This blueberry can also be called bilberry and I am not positive of the exact species, since there are at least five possibilities. I’ll give you link for link since I wrote a more “analytical” entry in my nature catalogue, which you can see here for more detailed pictures of the plant itself. The leaves are definitely distinct from your blueberry though, but the berry appears to be identical. Thank you for stopping in for this very interesting exchange.

  7. Deb Weyrich-Cody
    November 22, 2012

    (Hi Cindy, If I somehow did a duplication, this is the (finished) one I meant to send, duh on me!)
    This is wonderful Cindy; what a visceral description! It’s been decades since the last time I picked blueberries and although “Zen” wasn’t in my lexicon, “focus” surely was (possibly because it’s so much easier to peer up at the underside of plants and spy the treasure hidden within?; )
    I’m right there with you, except our picking is done in the high heat of Summer (complete with a full compliment of biting insects and a wary eye out for poison ivy): but, what I miss the most about these jaunts, in spite of the heat, is brushing up against the smooth, cool leaves of wintergreen, their scent intermingled with crunchy, sunbaked lichen and aromatic pine wafting on a barely-there breeze. Now that’s aromatherapy…
    Thank you for reminding me!

    • Cindy Kilpatrick
      November 27, 2012

      Well, I could have sworn that I had replied to you, Deb. I’m sure I told you how much I enjoyed your descriptive comment. You point out the climactic differences and I can imagine how pleasant the scent of wintergreen must be. There is wild mint here, but its not very prolific and it takes a bruising rub between the fingers to release the aroma. I’m so glad the post brought back this scent-laden memory for you and that you have shared it here. Keep well.

  8. Deb Weyrich-Cody
    November 21, 2014

    Haven’t visited for so long, but I’ve SO enjoyed your descriptions on the newest posts…
    Seeing the Bunchberries again reminded me – just as much this time as they did the last – of Wintergreen; but THIS time I have a link for you to look at to go with my memories… From me, here… To you, there…

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This entry was posted on September 16, 2012 by in The Journey and tagged , , , , .
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