About the Maine Wild Blueberry

Maine’s lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium Ait.) is native to northern New England and Atlantic Canada. In Maine, this crop is not planted but inhabits large fields on mountaintops and in glacial outwash plains which formed 10,000 years ago. Any given field can have as many as 1,500 genetically distinct wild blueberry plants that create a patchwork of berry flavor, shapes, and colors which is why many people refer to them as wild. Wild blueberries are grown in a two-year production cycle that alternates between a “prune year” and a “crop year.” Following the harvest in August, plants are pruned to the ground by mowing or burning. This makes the entire year after harvest, a vegetative year where stems, leaves, and buds develop. In the second year, plants bloom and produce blueberries. Wild blueberry farmers typically divide their acreage equally between the two cycles in order to harvest a crop every year.

Table of Contents

Brief Maine Wild Blueberry History

Wild blueberry is one of three commercially grown crops native to North America. It was first grown on a large scale by the Wabanaki native people who burn-pruned and harvested fields of wild blueberry. By the 1600’s English settlers had arrived to the coast of Maine (Abbot 1892), and blueberry fields were picked as a public privilege. During the Civil War (1861-1865) wild blueberries were sent by sea to the Union Army (Hanes and Waring 2018). In 1886, the berries were first canned and by the 1950s there were 21 canning factories. Following the war and into the early 1900’s, wild blueberry fields were purchased, and yield increased with the advent of freezing, fertilizer, herbicides, and the ability to remove boulders from fields. Field leveling, pollination, and mechanization increased yield further to the present day.

There are now 480 wild blueberry farms that range in size from 20 acres to thousands of acres, one of which is the resilient Passamaquoddy Tribe. Our current challenge is to distinguish wild blueberry, strengthen family farms and processing facilities, and encourage new farmers to incorporate this culturally and economically important crop into successful farm businesses. In 1945 a group of Maine Wild Blueberry farmers asked to be taxed in order to contribute to wild blueberry research at the University of Maine and contribute to promotion of their crop (Maine Tax on Blueberries 1945). The Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine was then formed to manage these funds as a State Statute which is still very active today. Check out the Virtual Wild Blueberry Museum for more history!

Video: Blueberry History (YouTube)

Maine Wild Blueberry Production

blueberry field with dirt road and a prune field on one side and crop field on the wither (showing the difference in height and color).
Blueberry production cycles: crop (left) and prune (right). Photo: Jennifer D’Appollonio

With intensified management, Maine wild blueberry production has increased steadily. The value of Maine wild blueberry production peaked in 2007 at the cost of $1.07/lb and the price per pound has since dropped. The prices in the figure include berries sold in both fresh and frozen markets. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Survey (NASS) conducted by the USDA, fresh markets that currently account for 1% of all Maine wild blueberry production are sold at a much higher price. The other 99% are frozen, allowing for storability and transport to the end user.

Wild Blueberry production and value graphed from 1924 to 2020
1924-2020 Maine wild blueberry production and statistics. Source: 1924-1989 Maine Department of Agriculture (1924 to 1928 includes imported berries), 1990 to 2021 New England Agricultural Statistics Service. For more information, please visit the Maine Wild Blueberry Production Statistics Fact Sheet.

There are 36,000 acres of commercial wild blueberry land in Maine, managed by 485 farmers.

UMaine Extensions’ Maine Wild Blueberry Research Team

Our wild blueberry team provides research-based knowledge for farmers. We are a group of extension specialists and researchers who do field and lab work directly with growers, graduate students, other researchers in the US and Canada, and the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine.

Our work covers a broad range of topics including IPM, agronomy, and food safety for wild blueberry. We hold a winter conference in February and field meetings throughout the season on farms. Everyone is welcome to attend our events and have access to factsheets, webinars, and research reports found on this website.

Meet the UMaine Extensions’ Wild Blueberry Research Team

Dr. Calderwood and her team organize several on-farm field days throughout the growing season and conferences over the winter. Check out our Events page to join us!

Our Extension and Research team works closely with the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine which is a state statute. Wild blueberry growers are encouraged to get involved with UMaine Extension and the Commission to voice their ideas and concerns.

Maine Wild Blueberry Botany

All blueberries and cranberries are in the genus Vaccinium and heath plant family, Ericaceae. While we generally refer to the commercial production of wild blueberries to be Vaccinium angustifolium, there are several species of wild, lowbush, blueberries found in Maine fields. The most abundant wild blueberry in our commercial fields is the low-sweet, Vaccinium angustifolium.

The huckleberry east of the Mississippi is the black huckleberry Gaylussacia baccata and is a weed in wild blueberry fields. In the US West, several blueberry types of Vaccinium species are referred to as huckleberries, but none of them occur in Maine. Myrtillus is the species name of the European bilberry, and except for a small disjunct population the Rockies probably brought by European settlers, does not occur in North America.

Maine Vaccinium Blueberry Species

Type Species Variety Common Name Height Characteristics
Lowbush V. angustifolium various Low Sweet 4-15” Smooth, dark green leaves. Bell-shaped white or pink blossoms. Waxy fruit creating light powder-blue berry color.
nigrum Black, Low Sweet Same as Low Sweet, except the black fruit is a result of less wax coating on the berries. Berries tend to be sweeter.
Lowbush V. myrtilloides various Sour Top 6-24” Hairy, light green-white leaves and stems Bell-shaped greenish-white blossoms. Berries are smaller, less sweet and bright blue with waxy coating. More cold tolerant and later blooming than low sweet.
Highbush V. corymbosum various Highbush Up to 6’ Tall tree-like shrubs, naturally found in bog forests of eastern North America. This species has been bred for commercial and homestead production. Large light-blue berries.
Half-high V. angustifolium x V. corymbosum various Half-high 20-60″ Occurs naturally in ME, but is also used commercially

Prepared by Lily Calderwood and David E. Yarborough (fact sheet 220), Wild Blueberry Extension Specialists, and Brogan Tooley, Assistant Researcher, The University of Maine, Orono ME 04469. Revised November 2020.

Literature Cited:

  • Abbott, J. S. C. (1892). The History of Maine. Brown Thurston Company.
  • Hanes, S. P., & Waring, T. M. (2018). Cultural evolution and US agricultural institutions: a historical case study of Maine’s blueberry industry. Sustainability science, 13(1), 49-58.
  • Kittery, Town of, “History of Kittery Maine” (2019). Maine History Documents. 210, UMaine Digital Commons.
  • Maine Blueberry Tax, P.L. 1945 Chapter 281 §§ 222-233 (1945).

Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

© 2020

Call 800.287.0274 (in Maine), or 207.581.3188, for information on publications and program offerings from University of Maine Cooperative Extension, or visit extension.umaine.edu.

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