I miss my Mississippi blues. Can you hear me singing?
With apologies to Fats Domino, “I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill.” Only this year, there is no thrill because I’m absent from the Mississippi Coast, home of the best blueberries in the United States.
Yes, step aside Michigan, Maine, New Jersey, Washington and you other blueberry croonin’ states. There’s nothing quite as good as a just-picked Mississippi blueberry.
Big. Fat. Juicy. Lusciously blue.
The challenge is that my personal Blueberry Hill is out of reach this year, although down the road from where I write this there is a Virginia winery that makes a nice blueberry wine. It’s just not the same. We fruitaholics crave the freshly picked, best of the crop, au naturel, real thing.
I try to time Coast forays with blueberry picking season, but this year was a no go. I hope in my stead you have visited u-pick-em farms or local farmer’s markets, or maybe even planted a few bushes for yourself. No? Shame! How could you not?
I concede. Other states do produce decent blueberries, but the up-from-its-bootstraps story of the Mississippi blueberry makes it even sweeter.
Back in time
Step back to 1969 and a hurricane named Camille. Earlier in the 20th century South Mississippians had learned that as the ancient forests were cleared for lumber, the cut-over lands were perfect for profitable tung tree orchards.
Tung oil was a popular ingredient in paint and varnishes. Pearl River County and to a lesser extent Harrison and Jackson, planted tung trees and did well until the 1960s, when foreign imports and cheap petroleum substitutes cut into Mississippi tung profits. The industry teetered, then fell. Literally.
Hurricane Camille in August leveled tung orchards, as well as many coastal towns. In the years-long recovery, the government-sponsored Poplarville agricultural experiment station that had convinced Mississippians to plant tung trees discovered another suitable crop for the now-devastated orchards.
Scientists at the experiment station realized that South Mississippi’s loamy soil and mild spring climate was great for blueberries that ripen earlier than other better know blueberry states. The scientists perfected new varieties for the region, and Miss Lou was born.
Miss Louis is the catchy nickname for Mississippi-Louisiana Blueberry Co-Operative Growers Association, which regionally promotes all things blueberry. By the turn of the 21st century, the six coastal counties had more than 400 blueberry farms.
Like all crops, blueberries are subject to weather. Too much rain and the berries swell, crack and split. Too little and they are not at their best. One of the good things about blueberries is that they rarely require the sprays and chemicals that raise the eyebrows of the organically minded, and they are recognized as a healthy, anti-oxidant food.
Blueberry farmers who sell wholesale commercially also must deal with labor shortages as the country debates seasonal immigrant labor needs. But those who open up several of their rows of berries to self-pickers like me should have a steady supply of local customers. The season runs from May hopefully to July, again depending on weather and the variety of blueberry bush.
Blueberries vs. blackberries
Take my word for it, picking blueberries is much easier than gathering blackberries, strawberries or figs. The bushes are high, the fruit is usually abundant and the ripe ones are easy to identify. A few tricks, like tying a light bucket around your waist, are helpful for faster, two-handed picking. Don’t forget the comfortable shoes, sunscreen and hat ... and an empty stomach.
Add your own lyrics as you sing, “I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill.” Might I suggest, “Ten for the bucket, then two for me. YumYum-meee, blue-berreee!”
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.