Saturday, June 21, 2014

Blueberry Solstice

Happy Solstice! I celebrated the first day of Summer in the summeriest way I know--picking blueberries! It turns out that Florida is a great place for growing blueberries. There are lots of wild, native varieties, but cultivated berries also do very well here and there are many blueberry farms around Gainesville. I do my picking at a You-Pick farm. We've tried several places and they were all great, but I've come to love my June excursions to the Blueberry Woman.

Blueberry Season!
Blueberry season comes at the end of the school year, just as the summer is beginning to really heat up. It's usually hot, humid, sunny and buggy. When we first moved to Florida, the whole family went berry picking together. We usually lasted about an hour before the group was tired out. But as the years went by and the kids grew up and moved away, I found myself going out alone. I actually prefer it this way because I just embrace the pure, drenching heat and can stay out for hours. And I can pick a lot of berries! I slather up with sunscreen, put on my hat and sunglasses, fill the water bottle, and settle in to work.

Most berry farms provide buckets, and the seasoned pickers tie the buckets to their waists with a rope so they can pick with both hands. With my bucket firmly attached, I head out into the rows. I like to walk to the back to get away from any groups of people because there is no sense bunching up together when there are so many rows of bushes to pick from. And I just enjoy being alone out there with my thoughts and my bucket.

The First Kerplunks
There are so many great sounds on a berry picking day. I just love the "thunk" sound of the first berries as they drop into the plastic bucket. The cicadas drone on in the background all day, making it sound even hotter. Blueberry season and the rainy season overlap, so you can often hear distant thunder, especially in the afternoon. I usually hear people talking from other rows. Children really love picking blueberries and you can tell from the excited sounds of their voices. You can also tell when they are tired and ready to go home. There are always sounds from the birds in the surrounding trees. Today I heard Cardinals, White Eyed Vireos, Great Crested Flycatchers, and a Yellow Billed Cuckoo. And this farm is near some cattle and donkeys and I could hear them heehawing today.

Cows in the Distance
There is some skill involved in blueberry picking. I only practice a few times a year, so I know I'm not as good as the professionals, but I look for big, plump, black/blue berries. A bush will have berries in all sorts of stages of development and you need to pick the ones you want without knocking off the unripe berries. I'm always on the lookout for a cluster of ripe berries because it is very satisfying to grab a whole handful. It's important to taste the berries as you go. Some bushes have much yummier berries than others. And eating a sun warmed blueberry right off of the bush is one of life's perfect pleasures.

Finding the Perfect Clusters
As I reach, I keep my eyes open for wasps because they like the sweet berries, too. There are also big leaf-footed bugs that buzz and surprise me sometimes. They don't bite but they suck juice out of the berries and ruin them (for me), so I try to stay away from the clusters where they are feeding. There are often fire ants on the pathways, and it's easy to step in them with so many distracting berries all around. There are usually opportunistic spiders that weave webs to catch the insects that feed on the fruit as it ripens and rots, and I try not to put my hand through their webs. And I always figure that there could be snakes in the bushes and grass, although I am less worried than interested. It seems to me that the most likely snakes would be harmless black racers and garter snakes.

Watch for Wasps

Leaf Footed Bug and its Berry
The blueberry rows almost always have blackberry bushes mixed in, and I always come home with some scratches from the thorns. And there are pretty wildflowers and vines all around. Today I was surprised by a large dragonfly carrying a Gulf Fritillary butterfly that it had caught for a meal. It sat near me and held on to its treasure while I snapped photos. Someday I hope to see turtles or otters in the river at the edge of the farm.
Blackberries and thorns

Meadowbeauty in the Grass

Mock Bishopweed


Dragonfly and its Treasure

Blackwater River on the Farm
After 2 1/2 hours of picking, my bucket was full and I was hot and tired. I picked almost 10 pounds of berries! They aren't cheap--I can buy them for less at the grocery store. But then I would miss the experience of picking, tasting, listening and sweating for my food. And I know where they came from and so I can recall the heat and breeze and buzz of cicadas when I'm eating fresh berries for breakfast, blueberry pies and muffins and again when I dig them out of the freezer. What a great way to start the summer!
Perfect Summer Day!

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