By Sara Mack, NCF Science & Stewardship Volunteer
Last week, my coworker Andee and I set out to Almanack Pond to check for two rare plant species. As a volunteer with the Science and Stewardship department this summer, one of my jobs has been surveying Nantucket Conservation Foundation properties for rare species and recording information about the plants we encounter. It is important to count the number of rare species and determine their location in order to update the status of the plant and keep up with conservation efforts.
Working with NCF this summer has been a blessing in a way I did not foresee. Although Nantucket is small, I didn’t realize that there were many places I had never been to, or hadn’t visited in quite some time, until I began my summer volunteer work.
Doing field work in these remote landscapes has brought me back to places where I grew up playing when I was young. I never completely understood just how fragile and important these environments are until just recently. I hate to say it, but I had not driven down Almanack Pond Road in years until last week. My family used to take me down there when I was little to go to the Windswept cranberry bog to look for turtles and go blueberry picking. I loved the feeling of the road; sandy and winding, and the trees growing alongside of it seemed to create a tunnel. Years ago, I remember driving down that road, overwhelmed with the scent of fox grape, excited to find turtles and frogs lurking in the bogs.
Now that I am older, my mission last week while traveling to Almanack Pond was different, and in that moment, I felt an unexpected nostalgia. I reveled in the fact that my relationship with Nantucket’s natural landscapes has evolved to include a well-rounded understanding with goals of conservation. As Andee and I began to hunt for these rare plants, it didn’t take long for us to mention how beautiful the area was. The pond looked like glass and there was a mist gently coating the surface. A rock near the center of the pond was home to a tiny painted turtle and dozens of blue dragonflies darted to and fro.
Iridescent spider webs among the grasses glimmered with morning dew. I couldn’t help but notice the highbush blueberry that lined the shore of the pond; these bushes were brimming with plump, frosty fruits, begging to be eaten by a couple of girls on the job.
Highbush blueberry, otherwise known as Vaccinium corymbosum, is the most widely cultivated fruit in North America and is native to Nantucket and many other parts of the continent. Highbush blueberry loves to grow in the acidic soil of wet, forested areas on the island. It’s comforting to know that this year has been a great blueberry season, as picking blueberries is a favorite pastime for many. Depending on who you talk to, there may not be as many scallops or bluefish as in the past, but there are still heaping amounts of blueberries to be picked. Even in a fairly dry summer like this one, blueberry shrubs growing around wetlands get enough water to produce plenty of fruit. And areas that were recently burned along the south shore of the island had lots of lowbush blueberries, too.
Blueberries haven’t just been a favorite in my lifetime; the Native Americans reaped many benefits of this shrub, too. In addition to eating the berries, they made a tea from the leaves and used the flowers and rhizomes to cure infant colic and to induce labor, and to even purify their blood!
Bees also have a love for blueberries, which helps in the pollination process because the bell-shape of blueberry flowers does not encourage self-pollination. Blueberry bushes produce much more fruit when they can cross-pollinate (exchange pollen) with other bushes growing nearby. We can attribute much of high bush blueberry’s success to the help of pollinators such as the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera), but before European colonists arrived with their hives of domesticated honey bees, there were already thriving populations of native bee species which co-evolved with our native blueberries. Check out this article from the University of Maine on native bee species that pollinate blueberries. In addition to bees, there is also assistance below-ground to ensure the success of blueberry shrubs. Endomycorrhizal fungi live inside the blueberry’s roots, while long filaments called ‘hyphae’ extend beyond the root and into the soil. These filaments act like root hairs and aid in nutrient and oxygen uptake. In return, the fungi gain starch and sugars from the plant. Mycorrhizae have a mutualistic relationship with most plants to some degree, however they are especially important in allowing blueberries to thrive in harsh environments.
While birds aid in seed dispersal, they can also cause destruction to the bushes as they eat away at the berries, buds and leaves. On Nantucket, catbirds, robins, crows and red-winged black birds (to name a few) feast on the berries in the mid to late summer. Once the berries ripen, it’s a race against the clock to pick them to make pies and pancakes before the birds get them all!
Blueberry picking is one of my fondest childhood memories. I distinctly remember picking with my grandpa, who gave me an old yellow peanut butter container with a snarly rope so that it could hang around my neck. I would get tired in the August humidity and plop down in the sphagnum moss and eat most of what I had picked. And even now, fortunately for me, I’ll never go hungry when I’m out in the field!