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Pruning wild blueberries and our relationship with the natural world

Arin Hirst
Arin Hirst

In 2022, Arin Hirst started selling wild blueberries at farmers' markets on the Outer Cape. He spent a lot of time in the woods, filling up bucket after bucket with our tiny abundant berries, and as he picked, he noticed something:

"I was harvesting these blueberry plants and a lot of them just looked kind of sickly."

When winter came, he decided to do some research. He wanted to know: how can I help these plants that are helping me make a living?

"And you know, besides things that you would normally do like fertilizing and trying to make the soil more acidic."

Which Arin felt like he couldn’t really do in the wild places where he was picking.

"The main thing was every, every website said these plants are pretty much made to be pruned."

So that winter while the plants were still dormant, Arin started cutting some of them back. And he says when he told people about this, he got some really interesting reactions:

"People who I know are very knowledgeable in both agriculture and conservation will laugh at me when I tell them that I prune wild blueberries. Like they're like, 'That's ridiculous. It's wild. It's in nature. Why would any interaction from a human be good for it?'"

Arin says he’s come to see this reaction as rooted in a Western colonial worldview that sees the world as a zero-sum competition: humans versus nature. In this line of thinking, Arin points out, "Anything that’s good for us is bad for nature and what we need to do is lessen our impact as opposed to improve our impact and have it be a mutually beneficial interaction."

Which when it comes to pruning wild blueberries, he believes it is.

"The reason why a lot of these fruit plants respond so well to pruning is very likely because they co-evolved with human beings for hundreds of thousands of years. The fact is these plants have been under a certain regime of forage management by Indigenous people for the majority of their existence as a plant on Cape Cod."

That management historically involved frequent burning, which renewed the plants on a regular basis, clearing out deadwood above ground and allowing their robust root systems with all their stored starches and proteins and nutrients to send up new sprouts. All blueberry canes, I learned after talking to Arin, start losing productivity after only six years. But this doesn’t mean that cutting them back will kill the plant.

"The cool thing about low bush blueberries is that in one single patch it'll be every plant is a clone of each other, like they're all connected to each other through the same rhizomes. So if you were to go down here and cut out most of this dead stuff, those rhizomes would be really happy because then they could send up new growth that looks like this."

The cane Arin’s holding is bright red, clearly healthy, and covered in leaf buds. This summer, he says, it will start photosynthesizing, sending sugars down to the tangled mat of rhizomes or roots below ground that will then allow the plant to make more fruit. And he says what he initially thought was a simple act — pruning a blueberry bush to restore its health — has for him become symbolic of a bigger conversation we need to be having.

"What we're doing now is implementing this hands-off kind of conservation policy where the default mode is to go to a regime of don't do anything because that's one that people can generally agree upon, and what we’re finding now is a lot of places in the world are learning how to move past that."

Arin says what excites him most about the prospect of implementing new conservation strategies centered on blueberries in particular is this idea of connecting our economic well-being to the well-being of our land.

"Which is something that we know is possible through like Wellfleet oysters, for example, but there’s so many other things and you know everyone likes to walk their dogs through the woods or walk through the sand dunes and stare off wistfully into the ocean but there’s actually an entire resilient ecosystem of edible usable plants that is just sitting out there waiting to be revitalized."

More information on pruning wild blueberries:

From the University of Maine

Government of New Brunswick, in Canada

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.