Saturday, May 19, 2012

Blueberry blues
Wednesday, 09/12/07 5:55pm
LISTEN (3:12)MP3 | Download MP3 - Vermont Public Radio
By Tom Slayton
(HOST) Everyone has their own private harbingers of the end of summer. Here's commentator Tom Slayton with one of his.

(SLAYTON) Summer is waning. I don't need a calendar; I can feel it in the air, and - I can taste it. Just yesterday I bought the last sweet corn, the last peaches of the season. And the first apples of fall.

It's blueberries that for me are the essence of a New England summer. But the blueberries, too, have now gone by. With hope in my heart, I stopped this week at two farm stands that declared they had blueberries for sale. But, alas, there were no blueberries to be had. The farmers had just forgotten to take down their signs.

However, I did salvage one piece of interesting information about blueberries. Earlier this year, I came across an essay by Roger B. Swain, called "Blueberry Planet," in a wonderful new book, entitled "Where the Mountain Stands Alone," edited by Howard Mansfield.

I couldn't put Swain's chapter down. It's a sort of botanical detective story; he describes the work of Frederick Vernon Coville, the USDA botanist who essentially discovered and developed the first commercial blueberry bushes in 1910.

Commercial blueberries, you see, are only about a century old. People have picked blueberries for ages, but it was Frederick Vernon Coville, who found in Greenfield, N.H., the single blueberry bush from which just about all modern commercial blueberries are descended.

That's right: all cultivated blueberries today are descended from the single high-bush blueberry plant that Coville discovered growing on the farm adjacent to his. He had been looking for three years for the right plant, searching the stony hills around Greenfield.

Farms were being abandoned then, around the turn of the century, and blueberry bushes needed no invitation to spring up on the stony hillsides.

And, of course, people went blueberrying. My mother and her family remembered blueberry picking high on the stony ledges of Camel's Hump above their little farm. The blueberries were sweet and blue, but small, pea-sized - a lot like the wild blueberries you buy today in rural Maine.

Coville was looking for a better berry - something larger, sweeter, earlier ripening. What he found was a single native high-bush blueberry plant with big, sweet berries more than a half-inch across. He named the plant "Brooks," after the farmer on whose farm he found it, and began crossing it with other large-fruiting plants.

Virtually all of the more than 150 varieties of cultivated blueberries available today trace their lineage back to Frederick Coville's "Brooks" blueberry.

I like the thought of Coville climbing around the stony hills looking for just the right blueberry plant, and finally finding it among thousands of others. I like the fact that living things like plants never fail to surprise us. And how, if we give it our careful attention and affection and care, the living, long-suffering earth really never fails us. It actually seems to respond eagerly to attention, intelligence, and care.

I've had to say a reluctant farewell to fresh Vermont blueberries for another year. But I know that they will return next summer, to gladden our hearts and our hillsides. And I'll be waiting for them.

Tom Slayton is editor-emeritus of Vermont Life magazine.


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