Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


By Hugh Murphy

Common names: Blueberry, Bilberry, Huckleberry

Cousins from the Vaccinium genus, blueberries and cranberries are two of the most popular and enduring foods of the western hemisphere.  The blueberry’s deep blue or black fruit is nearly as common in today’s supermarkets as it was in the storerooms of American Indians hundreds of years ago.  Vaccinium berries, including 60-70 species of blueberries, span the entire North American continent from Alaska to the Andes of South America (Kavasch). 


Blueberry bushes are low-level shrubs common in areas with acidic soil.  They can survive at low or high elevations, with at least fifteen species found in the Rocky Mountains between 6,000 and 9,000 feet (Scully, 16).  Small pink or white flowers give way to deep blue or bluish-black berries which ripen in mid-summer. 



American Indian tribes harvested large quantities of blueberries to be eaten raw or dried for later use.  Dried berries were added whole to puddings and cakes or ground and added to flour, soups and meat as flavoring (Davidson, 83).  Blueberries were also a commonly mixed with dry, ground meat to make pemmican. 


Humans are not the only mammals fond of blueberries.  Ripe blueberries are a staple in the diet of North American black and grizzly bears.  Bears begin in the valleys where the berries ripen first, then follow the ripening season up through higher elevations.  It is said that in years when the harvest is poor, bears may travel between ten and fifteen miles a day to a producing berry patch (Scully, 17). 


Blueberry tea was often prescribed as a muscle relaxant or anti-spasmodic, especially for women during childbirth.  Berries were also boiled down into a thick syrup which was used to treat the coughs and sore throat caused by tuberculosis (Scully, 125). 


Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.  

Kavasch, Barrie E.  Enduring Harvests.  Old Saybrook, CT:  Globe Pequot Press, 1995. 

Scully, Virginia. A Treasury of American Indian Herbs – Their Lore and Their Use for Food, Drugs, and Medicine.  New York:  Crown Publishers, Inc. 1970.