Blueberries: Mississippi's research efforts bear fruit
The Fourth of July is a month away, but Mississippi is already going red, white and blueberry. July has been designated National Blueberry Month, but two Mississippi festivals will honor the fruit this month.
Along with Concord grapes and cranberries, blueberries are the only fruits native to North America, according to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council.
But blueberries weren't commercially grown in Mississippi until the 1970s.
Donna Marshall, a horticulturist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Southern Horticultural Laboratory in Poplarville, said Mississippi now has more than 2,000 acres of blueberries and unique timing in the market.
Mississippi's berries ripen earlier than Northern states' berries and after South America's growing season has ended, she said.
Horticulturist James Spiers, the laboratory's research leader, began cultivating blueberries at the lab in 1971.
"He was working on different things, and they pretty much told him to pick one thing and go with it," Marshall said. "He went out on a limb with blueberries, and in 1976, we officially became a small fruit research station with five acres of blueberries. Before that, there were no commercial plantings."
Today, the research team is trying to develop a larger and healthier blueberry, and the fruit is helping define Poplarville.
On June 13, the town will host the 26th annual Pearl River County Blueberry Jubilee from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The downtown event that promotes the blueberry industry will feature arts and crafts, music, storytelling, a beauty pageant, an auto show, food booths and a 5K run.
"We have two covered wagons that we take downtown, pick people up and take them to the research station," said Marshall, who serves on the event committee.
Publicity spokeswoman Tammy Krutzfeldt said about 200 vendors will be present.
"There are lots of blueberry products," she said. "A blueberry queen will be crowned. For the first time, we will have a blueberry recipe contest for desserts and salads. Next year, we hope to expand it."
Those who want to sample blueberries a little earlier can travel to Ocean Springs Saturday to the fourth annual Red, White & Blueberry Festival.
The event will be 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the L&N Depot parking lot at 1000 Washington Ave. Diane Claughton, co-founder of the Ocean Springs Fresh Market, said the market and Chamber of Commerce jointly sponsor the event.
"We will have about eight blueberry farmers and 40 booths," she said. From 11 a.m. to noon, local cooks will give demonstrations.
Kenny Ward, owner of Kenny Ward's restaurant in Ocean Springs, will show spectators how to cook a grilled, skinless duck breast with a blueberry and red wine reduction sauce, while Debbie Patout of Rene's Quality Meats will create a blossom croissant with creme brulee and fresh blueberries. "It's a lot of fun," Claughton said.
Eating blueberries is also a smart move. According to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council; one cup of blueberries has 80 calories and is an excellent source of vitamin C, dietary fiber and manganese. Blueberries also contain antioxidants thought to help reduce the risk of chronic disease.
* There has been a 50 percent increase in consumption of blueberries during the last 10 years.
* American Indians in the Northwest Territory smoked wild blueberries to preserve them for the winter.
* Blueberries contain no cholesterol or fat and are also low in calories.
* Blueberries are ranked No. 1 in antioxidant activity compared with 40 other commercially available fruits and vegetables. That means a serving of blueberries has more of the antioxidant power you need to fight aging, cancer and heart disease.
* Blueberry season is from May to September. Look for berries with a silvery "bloom," as this is a natural protective coating. They should be refrigerated as quickly as possible and kept dry. Do not wash until you are ready to use them. They will last up to wo weeks if stored properly.