If you consider fruit a provider of the first sugars in North America, then you must admire the thirteen-thousand-year-old blueberry. The sweet little button-bearing plant grows around the world, spreading its roots from Alaska to the jungles of South America. It’s hefty, sturdy, and steadfast enough to endure long winters and productive enough to feed the masses.
For Native Americans, the blueberry served numerous purposes. Depending on where they lived, they used the juice as a dye, the leaves as a tea meant to improve the blood, and the roots and leaves as a multi-purpose medicine. They added blueberries to stews and crushed them into a powder as a rub for meat.
The high sugar content also made the blueberry a delicious food and preservative that lasted through the lean days of winter. In fact, the ever-present blueberry appears in a legend from the Northeast, which calls the blueberry a “star berry” for the star shape at the bottom. The legend reveals that the Great Spirit sent the fruit to help humans during a time of famine.
To get more information on the blueberry, I contacted Joel Rohbe, who was referred to me by some folks at the Red Lake Nation, home of the Ojibway tribe in Minnesota. He told me that the Ojibway have eaten nothing but wild, uncultivated blueberries. “You should see,” he told me, “there are acres and acres of them. All the land as far as you can see, everywhere, turns blue.” To ensure the berries’ growth, the tribe burns a portion of thefields every year, which enables the berries to die back and return with new, invigorated life.
So important is the blueberry, and so steadfast and significant its nature, Native Americans have been using it for 10,000 years.