It’s May 18 and it’s been snowing outside, with the temperature hovering a few degrees below the freezing mark. Not at all pleasant.
But, it’s northern Ontario, so not totally unexpected. As we are fond of saying up here – at least it keeps the bugs down!
One worry about these late spring frosts, especially when they occur after an extended period of nice, warm weather (although it hasn’t been all that nice, or warm . . . . ) is the potential to hurt the berry crop, especially blueberries. Not only are blueberries yummy human food (and blueberries produced by the agribusiness industry do not hold a candle to their wild cousins with respect to the taste department), they are by far the most important food there is for a myriad of species of wildlife. Birds, bears, white-tailed deer, groundhogs, foxes, and even timber wolves are just a sampling of wildlife that eat blueberries with gusto. So when the blueberry crop fails in the north woods, life can be hard, as there just isn’t the diversity of foodstuffs that exist in more southern climes.
And blueberries were definitely in bloom when the cold and snow hit.
Fortunately, blueberries are hardy, and can often survive a late winters blast. And not all the berry bushes will have been at the same stage of development. And not all blueberries are the same, as there are at least three species common in our area (the highbush, lowbush and velvetleaf). Still, I’m sure there will be an impact. Time will tell how bad it was.
Taxonomically, blueberries are a member of Heath Family of plants that are found mostly in temperate and cold regions around the world, as well as up in the mountains in the tropics. On a finer scale, they are in the Huckleberry Subfamily, which contains about 330 species word wide.
Blueberries thrive in acidic soils with good exposure to sunlight, although a bit of shade can actually help produce more succulent berries. After wildfire, or following a timber harvest, blueberries can be unbelievably abundant. In a good year, it’s not hard to pick a five-gallon pail in a couple of hours, or less.
Blueberries are without a doubt a health food. They contain a variety of natural phytochemicals such as anthocyanin and wild blueberries have twice the antioxidant capacity per serving of domesticated varieties. They can be eaten ‘as is’, sprinkled on cereal, put into pancakes and make an excellent pie as well as great tasting jam and jellies. Aboriginal people often used blueberries to make a vegetal pemmican, which could be kept for up to two years. Blueberries also make a nice, sweet wine, which can be drunk, but is better, in my opinion, when used as a marinate to reduce the strong, gamey taste of birds such as sharp-tailed grouse. Indeed, marinating the breasts of sharpies for as little as a half-hour before putting them on a BBQ is all it takes to make a great tasting dish. There are many, many ways to dish up blueberries.
Interestingly, not all blueberries are blue in colour. Some are black, and I have occasionally found ripe blueberries that were white as snow. Maybe that’s what happens when they get a late spring surprise like we got today.
When there’s a good crop of blueberries, the number of nuisance bears is low. When the crop fails, their numbers surge. In Kenora, there can be dozens of bears in urban areas by late summer, raiding gardens and rooting for garbage. Many get destroyed because a hungry, nuisance bear is a real pest – and are almost impossible to dissuade – as well as a threat to human safety.
Here’s to hoping the berry crop wasn’t done in by the cold and snow.