Wild blueberries a summer tradition in local woods

LAKE COUNTY — For some, summertime means trampling through the woods, looking for wild blueberries, a tradition which goes way back in Lake County. Whether finding just a few, or a lot, those who look for the wild berries agree it's worth the effort.

Although the berries are small, they are packed with big flavor - and are often described as being tastier than domesticated blueberries.

Beginning in July, the sweet fragrance of wild blueberries is carried with the warm summer breezes in many locations of the vast woodlands of Lake County. Rich in vitamin C and antioxidants, wild blueberries are free of cost, and, so is the fun of hiking through the woods looking for them.

If the gatherer doesn't eat all of the blueberries directly from the shrubs, they may find enough to make a batch of blueberry pancakes, or if they happen upon a good patch during an ideal year, the aroma of wild blueberry pies, crisps and jams fill the kitchen.

For Kathleen Baker, coming to Michigan each summer awakens fond childhood memories of trampling through the woods near Wolf Lake with her many cousins and siblings, gathering blueberries which then were made into tasty treats by a kind neighbor, Mrs. Krystiniak.

"We would all go and find all the wild blueberries we could, and we would bring them to Mrs. Krystiniak," Baker said. "When she rang the dinner bell, this was our signal the pancakes she made from the wild blueberries we found, were ready."

Elizabeth Bosley, who grew up in Baldwin, remembers her mother, Florence Duffing, telling about how blueberry picking was quite a big deal in Lake County in older times. Her mother recalled crates of wild blueberries picked by locals being sold at George Duffing's store on the southwest corner of 7th Street and M-37.

An early account from the Lake County Star, from July 21, 1873, attests blueberry picking was an important and adventurous activity for the early settlers, as well. Readers may note, back then wild blueberries were often called huckleberries.

"If you are not inclined to think it is rare sport to go huckleberrying, just start some fine morning with the oxen and wagon, and a happy crowd of about five young ladies and three or four young men, and a bountiful supply of eatables for the lunch. Travel about six miles from home, over crossways and up and down hills, stopping every now and then to chop the logs out of the road.

"Arriving at the grounds you may all set at work picking berries, and when the dinner hour arrives gather at some convenient grass plot near the wagon and dispose of the contents of the lunch baskets. After that you have only to pick berries until you are tired out, the dishes are all full, or both, and then set out for home, feeling quite well contented with the day's pastime.

"I almost forgot to mention that you might start early in the morning when the mosquitos and gnats are lively and bite to good advantage, but upon the carrying out of this part of the program, I would not insist. Tell your readers they must not suspect I am trying to describe the trip of a berrying party in Ellsworth Township, but to consider this as simply some suggestions as to how to have a good time if they will only consider it."

Wild blueberries would have been more abundant in earlier times, when the county was less settled. In recent years, sometimes they can be plentiful, but a really good wild blueberry season is far and few between. Often, unpredictable weather or lack of rainfall at the right time can tamper with their fickle development.

Blueberry shrubs can be identified in spring as stout plants, with pinkish white flowers, and small pointed leaves, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources website, and can be found in acidic and fire-adapted ecosystems other vegetation can't grow so well in.

The berries can be identified with a five-pointed crown on their underside.