So, what the heck is a blueberry?
Botanically, the blueberry is a perennial flowering deciduous shrub in the family Ericaceae, and is related to the cranberry, huckleberry, whortleberry and bilberry within the genus Vaccinium. A blueberry is a tiny round smooth berry with a puckered calyx on the bottom. The skin is bluish-purple or indigo-colored because they are rich in pro-anthocyanin with is a natural pigment antioxidant. The Vaccinum cyanococcus varieties are native to North America and are the most common fruits sold commercially as “blueberries”. Commercial blueberries are usually from species that naturally occur only in eastern and north-central North America.
The members of the vaccinium species are classified according the way they grow, either as high-bush or low-bush berries. Traditionally, blueberries are handpicked, and the berries are ready to harvest when the greenish pink color turns completely blue. This requires intense labor, which is why they seem so expensive in the markets.
The high-bush varieties grow between 10 to 12 feet tall in cultivated orchards Some commercial high-bush varieties are known as Bluecrop, O’Neal, Bluejay, and Brigitta ( Vaccinium corymbosum L.) The wild blueberry ( Vaccinium angustifolium L.) is a low-bush variety that is not generally commercially available, largely because they are not as easy to pick as the high-bush varieties. The low-bush blueberry grows only about one to two feet tall. On farms where the wild blueberry is cultivated, it is grown as a two-year cycle crop, and the whole plant gets either mowed down or the field is burned to allow only the new shoots that grow from the underground rhizomes during the next season.
The flavor of a blueberry is variably said to be tart-tangy or sweet-tangy depending on individual berries, varieties, or the orchard from which they came. Many commercial boxes of berries in the produce department may contain mixed varieties.
However, there is a bit of mystery surrounding blueberries, and that is that they look similar to other species and other species may also be referred to as “blueberries”. The north American Cyanococcus blueberries can be differentiated from the nearly identical-looking bilberries by the color of the flesh when sliced in half. Ripe blueberries have a light green flesh, while bilberries, whortleberries and huckleberries are red or purple throughout. These other species are sometimes called “blueberries” and sold as blueberry jam or as other products, which makes finding out how many calories in a blueberry a bit dicey if you don’t know exactly which species is being called a blueberry.
By the way, it is always a good idea to wash fresh blueberries before eating, to remove tree and travel dust, picker’s fingerprint, and potential pesticide residue. Buying organic blueberries solves only the pesticide issue, since handpicked blueberries may still have been handled by other people (who may or may not have been wearing gloves), rather than machines, before purchase.