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Illinois’ Blueberry Hills

There’s a tasty little morsel called the low-bush blueberry—and it grows wild in Illinois.
When Illinois hikers pause to nibble a few wild berries along the trail, their sweet fare usually consists of delicious raspberries or blackberries, or those tiny, wild strawberries.
There is, however, a hidden berry treat native to Illinois’ sandstone hills, and it’s known as Vaccinium pallidum.

The low-bush blueberry, as it’s commonly known, is a relatively inconspicuous understory resident often found in the unglaciated hills of southern Illinois. If you’re a botanical trivia fan, and a little lucky—and in the right place—you just might be able to gather enough of these pea-sized treats to sweeten your palate while you stroll through the summer and early autumn forests at such places as Giant City or Ferne Clyffe state parks.
Don’t expect a feast. The truth is, wild blueberry-picking in Illinois is not an endeavor in which one expects to fill a 5-gallon bucket. But for dedicated specialists of wild edibles, the overlooked fruits of the low-bush blueberry can be a delightful pause in the summer forests. 

How to identify Vaccinium pallidum?
V. pallidum tends to grow about knee-high as a shrub and prefers the sandstone hills of a region known as the Illinois Ozarks. The alternately spaced leaves are ovate and ever-so-slightly touched with fine hairs. In late summer and autumn, the leaves develop reddish patches and streaks, usually before most trees show their fall colors. The underside of the dull-green leaf is comparatively pale, vaguely whitish. The alternately spaced branches are basically green (like  sassafras or box elder twigs), right down to the ground. As for the berries, they’re green at first, then ripen to a blue-black sweetness anytime between June and September.

Never eat any berry you cannot positively identify as edible. Read that sentence again, as if your life depends on it.

Illinois actually hosts a couple of different species known as “low-bush” blueberries. V. angustifolium, which grows in northeast Illinois and throughout northeast North America, is one of the species from which those commercial, jumbo-sized blueberries are cultivated today. But more about V. angustifolium another time.

If you’re one of those devoted, I-picked-it-myself natural food enthusiasts, and you’re willing to think small, maybe you’ll find just enough of these native Illinois blueberries to sprinkle on pancakes. Or bake into a few muffins. In the end, your wild tidbits probably won’t make it out of the woods before disappearing. But that’s one of the satisfactions of being outdoors.
By: Joe McFarland