I put a handful of blueberries into a mason jar filled with water and add a few sprigs of spring-growth Labrador tea, and for good measure, I add several spruce tips and let the water steep for a few minutes.
Blueberries are my remedy for the winter blues, and by that I mean an energy pick-me-up. Sometimes it’s hard to get through the last part of winter, especially when I know spring is right around the corner.
As I sip the blueberry water, I’m transported back to mid-July to the “family blueberry spot,” as we called it.
I’m standing next to my daughter Nikka and my newborn grandson, “Bear.” Bear is in a carrier strapped to Nikka’s chest and she’s picking blueberries along with us. This is Bear’s first outing into the wilderness and he’s only two weeks old.
We call this blueberry patch the family spot because there’s a picnic table, parking, and a trail easily accessible for elders. I leave Nikka and Grandson Bear near the trail, and Grandson Jackson and I make our way through the bushes to a large berry patch. Grandson Timothy follows his great-grandpa Mickey farther down the trail.
As I pick, my hands lips and tongue turn purple. My grandkids and I are sampling the berries today. At least two varieties of blueberries surround us. I can tell by the size of the bushes and the shape of the leaves. I pull a branch out to show Jackson. “See, this one is shiny and dark. These are black huckleberries. You can pick those into the bucket too.”
There’re a few blueberry varieties in Alaska: the oval-leaf blueberry, the Alaskan blueberry, dwarf blueberry, the black huckleberry and the lowbush blueberry. These varieties are often called other names in different parts of Alaska. The Alaska blueberry is thought to be a hybrid from the oval-leaf and the red huckleberry. With the exception of the lowbush variety, I don’t separate them when picking because they grow in the same areas.
Black huckleberry bushes, Vaccinium membranaceum, can grow over six feet high.
Surrounded by blueberries, Nikka sits on a stump and nurses the fussy baby. Soon, Bear is quiet and she starts picking again. Great-grandpa Mickey coughs in the bushes so we know where he’s at. “Where are you!” I yell out to Grandson Timothy.
A large bush wiggles near his grandfather. “Over here,” Timothy yells.
We manage to pick for about an hour before everyone decides we’re done. We have four generations of blueberry pickers with us. There’s nothing like smelling like berries and leaves and moss at the end of the day. This fond memory will take me through the end of the summer, into fall and through Winter.
We share our love of blueberries with the bears, deer, squirrels, moose, grouse, ptarmigans, and thrushes.
I sip the blueberry water and sigh, remembering the smell of the bushes and the warm sun. Soon I’ll be watching for the first blueberry blossom. I’m hoping this last cold spell was the final one. Bear will be a year old when blueberry season arrives, and that’ll bring new challenges as we bring a baby out to pick berries.
Though the Alaska blueberry picking season is anywhere from the end of June to mid-October depending on the region and weather patterns, winter is also a time for eating berries. Like the us, animals depend on the blueberry plants for their winter browsing. The Alaskan blueberry, especially, is found in shallower snow beneath older growth, which makes it more accessible to browsers.
This winter, my daughter Nikka is teaching Grandson Bear to love our traditional subsistence foods, including berries. So far he’s not too sure about the tart berries. They’re good nutrition for the long winter days because they’re high in fiber and carbohydrates and a good source of vitamin C, niacin and manganese. They’re a dose of Vitamin Happiness. Blueberries also work to control blood sugar and have a calming effect. Blueberries can increase serotonin levels and help those suffering from PTSD, anxiety and depression.
A bowl of blueberries improves winter sluggishness. The antioxidants in the blueberries stimulate oxygen flow to the brain. In one blueberry study, participants who drank blueberry smoothies had better mental acuity in the mid-afternoon than people who drank something else.
The most widespread of all the Alaskan blueberries is the lowbush blueberry.
My oldest daughter Vivian Mork Yéilk’, a traditional foods specialist, says blueberries are a “superfood.” Superfoods such as salmon, berries and seaweed are nutritionally dense and have significant health benefits. She tested the antioxidant levels in some of Alaska’s edibles alongside the researchers at the University of Alaska who studied Alaska’s blueberries. Antioxidants are micronutrients that are essential to our body’s metabolism. They block oxidation’s destructive effects: antioxidants. They’re also anti-inflammatory and protect against cell damage that can lead to Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and heart disease.
Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity analysis measures a food’s antioxidant activity. The Alaska blueberry has a score of 76 compared to farmed/cultivated blueberries that test at 30. And all Alaska’s blueberry varieties scored way higher than wild blueberries in the lower 48. Lower 48 wild blueberries measure 61 with Alaska’s oval-leaf blueberry scoring 111, our dwarf blueberry 85, and our bog blueberry scoring 77. That’s a big difference.
Interestingly, home processing, such as freezing, does not diminish the antioxidant and drying them is one way to keep the antioxidant levels at their highest concentration. We make jelly and jam with our blueberries, but mostly we freeze them. This winter I’ve made blueberry smoothies, blueberry tarts and pies, jams and jellies, blueberry butter, blueberry buckle and blueberry muffins and blueberry pancakes. I’ve drank blueberry iced tea and blueberry lemonade and added blueberries to my cereal and oatmeal.
A single Alaska blueberry can have more than a hundred seeds.
After decades of harvesting blueberries, the days seem to run together, but then a taste of a tart berry floating in water takes me back into the bushes, watching my grandson’s small hands pluck a berry into his mouth, listening to a grandfather telling stories, and a picnic of smoked salmon spread on pilot bread and homemade cookies. Vitamin Happiness for the winter blues.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’.
Blueberry Winter Smoothie
In a blender add a cup of your favorite juice like orange, cranberry, or juice blend.
Add 3 to 4 heaping spoons of Greek yogurt (any flavor).
Add ½ to 1 cup any combination of apple slices, strawberries, orange, banana, kiwi, etc.
You can even sneak in some shredded carrot and kale.
Add ½ to 1 cup blueberries.
I add a few spruce tips too (up to ¼ c) because I like spruce tips in everything.
Add honey or other sweetener to taste.
Add coconut or almond milk to fill the blender (but leave room for mixing).
Add a handful of ice.
Use the chop setting for a few seconds then increase to blend for a minute to make sure everything is well mixed. You can add more milk or juice if needed.
Fill a Mason jar with water but leave a bit of room to add ingredients.
Add about ¼ cup (or less) blueberries.
Add 1 or 2 sprigs of spring growth Labrador tea or Labrador tea leaves.
Add 3-4 spruce tips (frozen or dried).
Let steep for a few minutes.
You can add a healthy sweetener if you desire.
If you want to make iced tea instead of water then add a cold brew tea bag or mix with your favorite brewed tea. Add a few blueberries to your favorite hot tea.