The scent of sun-warmed pine needles tickled our noses when we stepped out of the car. Scrambling up the sandy road cut -- buckets in hand – we began immediately to pick little clusters of blueberries and drop them in. Plops were soon muffled by a thick layer of fruit. Midday sun warmed the backs of our necks.
Happily, we picked and talked as our buckets filled. “Have you tried one yet?” I asked Kellie Solberg, one of the Museum’s summer interns. Kellie had eaten some tasteless store-bought berries year ago, and decided that she didn’t like blueberries. She came along on this picking expedition just to be sociable with Katie McKiernan, our other summer intern, and me. But I knew that these wild berries weren’t anything like those in stores.
“Hey, those are pretty good!” came her typically enthusiastic reply. Katie and I chuckled, unsurprised. By this late in the summer, our interns are a perfectly functioning team. Junior Naturalist lesson plans seem to pop out of the ether connecting their brains, while inside jokes, good-natured teasing, and ideas for “adventures” keep us all laughing. They are a valued part of the Museum community.
Blueberries also live in their own natural community, with their own special “teamwork.”
In this thin, sandy, acidic soil, getting the right suite of nutrients and water for growth can be tough. Thin strands of special fungi coil within the blueberry root cells and extend threads of hyphae outside the root. The hyphae act like root-extensions, drawing in nutrients and water beyond the typical reach of the blueberry.
The fungi can also break down soil components to access nutrients that are otherwise locked away. This decomposition is an incredibly important part of a healthy ecosystem. The blueberry pays for this service by giving the fungi little sugar snacks. It is a mutualistic symbiosis.
The blueberries’ vibrant community includes other things you might not think of, too: pollinating insects like honeybees and black flies; pest insects like blueberry maggot flies; beneficial wasps that parasitize the pests; wildflowers like bunchberry and dogbane that host the wasps; bearberry plants which also partner with mycorrhizal fungi; long-tongued bears with big appetites; and even wildfire—to help prune the blueberries (which stimulates growth) and clear the way for more sunlight (which stimulates flower production).
The community also included three purple-tongued naturalists, for at least a short while.
Eventually, though, our buckets filled. The summery sound of grasshopper wings clacking in flight seemed to make the sunshine hotter. We retreated to another sandy place – Sioux Beach on Lake Superior. As we cooled our toes, plans began to emerge for what to do with the buckets of berries.
Our trio reconvened in the kitchen the following evening. Three pots bubbled on the stove: the canner, the saucepan full of lids, and the soup pot full of berries. Folk singer Greg Brown crooned on my laptop’s speakers – “Taste a little of the summer…You can taste a little of the summer…my grandma's put it all in jars.” (from Canned Goods, on If I Had Known: Essential Recordings”)
I have many fond memories of “helping” my mom make strawberry jam as a kid, and eating it all through the winter. I’ve been jamming on my own since becoming interested in wild edibles (aka free food) in college. I was surprised to learn that neither Kellie nor Katie had ever canned anything.
As I explained the process to them, and the importance each step, I realized that we were attempting to create the opposite of the living, thriving community where we’d picked the berries.
In order to keep for a year without refrigeration, all bacteria that could possibly be in the berries or in the jars needed to be eliminated. We basically needed to stop the process of decomposition.
Adding acidic lemon juice allowed the bacteria to be killed at boiling temperature, instead of the 240 degrees it takes in low acid foods. Adding sugar also slows the growth of bacteria, while sterilizing the jars and lids in boiling water reduces the chances of contamination. Processing the filled jars in a hot water bath for 10-20 minutes causes the fruit to expand, force extra air out of the jar, and then seal with a vacuum as it cools. Each lid gave a metallic “plink” as the metal inverted, eliciting a satisfied smile from all of us home canners.
In place of the diversity and life we encountered in the fields, we ended up with delicious—but sterile—jam, ready to sit on a shelf until the bitter winds of winter howl outside. On a particularly dreary day, we can open a jar, and savor the wild taste of sun-warmed pine needles, feel the midday sun, and remember the touch of water lapping at our toes.
“Maybe you're weary an' you don't give a damn…I bet you never tasted her [blue]berry jam…You can taste a little of the summer…my [interns] put it all in jars.” (With apologies to Greg Brown.)
For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! The current exhibit, “Nature’s Superheroes—Adventures with Adaptations,” opens in May 2014 and will remain open until March 2015.
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Blueberries live in a vibrant community, full of fungi, wasps, bears, and hungry naturalists. In order to preserve them as jam, we must eradicate all that life – but not the flavor of summer. Photo by Emily Stone.