Celebrated in festivals and showcased in restaurants across the state, blueberries are one of the few fruits native to North America. They were used by Native Americans for food and for healing purposes, and are the precursors to the commercial fruit available today. The tiny blueberry has an appeal that seems to know no bounds.
“Blueberries are growing in popularity due to their delicious flavor and health benefits,” says Victoria De Bruin, marketing manager at the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council. “Consumers are making blueberries a year-round kitchen staple. They’re the go-to fruit consumers don’t have to think twice about, with zero prep work needed—just rinse and go.”
Michigan produces about 100 million pounds of blueberries annually, with cultivated and wild varieties ripening between July and October. It’s the top highbush blueberry-growing state in the country, with most of the acreage in southwestern Michigan near South Haven, where sandy, acidic soil and temperatures moderated by Lake Michigan make for good crops.
And that’s where the National Blueberry Festival has been going on for more than 50 years. What started as a small event featuring baking competitions and recipe exchanges has evolved into a major tourist attraction, drawing an estimated 50,000 people to a four-day celebration that includes parades, pageants, pie-eating contests and myriad musical shows.
Teenagers compete in pageants. Little kids jam their faces into blueberry pies trying to win a ribbon (blue, of course). And families lounge on the grass at the city’s Riverfront Park, listening to all kinds of free music. It’s a real slice of Americana.
You can eat pie, of course, but you can also join the locals at a blueberry pancake breakfast, taste a blueberry tamale at a growers’ market or sip a blueberry mojito at a downtown restaurant.
South Haven’s festival may be the most well- known, but it’s not the only one in Michigan. The town of Paradise, in the Upper Peninsula, calls itself the Wild Blueberry Capital of the state, and hosts an annual festival celebrating the “blue gold” that grew naturally on logged-out forest land that had been swept by fires. In the 1920s and 30s, workers flocked to the remote area on the Lake Superior shore to pick berries that were shipped to Great Lakes cities. The line forms before the doors open for the blueberry pancake breakfast and homemade wild blueberry pie.
Though festivals are lots of fun, you don’t have to be tied to a specific time and place to get your fill of blueberries.
U-pick farms are popular and an enjoyable way to spend a few hours with children during the summer months. You tie a rope around your waist with a bucket attached, keeping both hands free for the picking. Or head to public lands in the U.P. to forage for wild berries.
The Blueberry Store in South Haven is open year-round, selling fresh, frozen and dried blueberries, syrups, jams and honeys but also blueberry mustard, beer, wine and candy. There are bath and beauty items and even blueberry dog treats.
Mark Longstroth, a blueberry expert at Michigan State University Extension, tracks blueberry production in Michigan and elsewhere, and notes that U.S. blueberry production has more than tripled from 163 million pounds in 1995 to 521 million pounds in 2017. He calls it the “blue wave,” an increase in demand that seems to go hand in hand with the publication of research on the health benefits of blueberries.
According to the website University Health News, blueberries positively impact “everything from your heart to your blood vessels to your brain.” The little blue dynamos deliver vitamins and nutrients, are rich in disease-fighting antioxidants, and are low in fat and calories and high in fiber.
In the early part of the 20th century, U.S. Department of Agriculture botanist Frederick Coville collaborated with Elizabeth White, a New Jersey farmer, to propagate the highbush blueberries, producing the first commercial crop of hybridized berries in 1916. More than 100 years later, their efforts are still bearing fruit.
July is National Blueberry Month, when the celebrations begin with a festival in Marquette (July 26), followed by:
- Aug. 3 | Harrietta Blueberry Festival
- Aug. 8-11 | National Blueberry Festival (South Haven)
- Aug. 16-18 | Montrose Blueberry Festival
- Aug. 16-18 | Wild Blueberry Festival (Paradise)
Photo by Julie Fogarty
This article originally appeared in the 2019 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.