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Why Do Wild Blueberry Barrens Turn Red in Fall?

The answer is surprisingly good for you!


The fall season in Down East Maine is more than a little dramatic. The seas turn dark and stormy, the skies turn crisp and blue, and thousands of acres of Wild Blueberry barrens turn fiery red! Why all that red? We turned to resident Wild Blueberry expert Dr. David Yarborough for answers. David is the Wild Blueberry Specialist with the Cooperative Extension and professor of horticulture at the University of Maine, where he has worked for 34 years. We just call him “Mr. Wild Blueberry.”

Why are the barrens so red at this time of year?

It’s all of the anthocyanins in the leaves that turns them that beautiful shade of red. With the Wild Blueberry harvest now complete, this is the time when the plants prepare to go dormant for the winter. And like our New England hardwood forests, the Wild Blueberries give us this annual burst of color that is a result of pigments being synthesized by the plants just before the leaves fall.

Why red and not yellow or orange?

Wild Blueberries turn bright red as opposed to the oranges, purples and yellows we also see in the surrounding plant life at this time of year. The deep shades of red are the result of significant amounts of anthocyanin and the retention of carotenoids — or pigments. The brownish colors we see at this time of year are the result of anthocyanin and chlorophyll. In some plants, like Wild Blueberries, the colors are quite uniformly red. In other plants, such as sugar maples and red maples, the colors can vary considerably from red to yellow to orange.

What are anthocyanins?

Anthocyanins belong to a class of molecules called flavonoids. Not only do they get the credit for our beautiful fall colors, but when we eat the fruit of plants high in anthocyanins we get the powerful health benefits associated with this class of foods. {Tweet this} Anthocyanins act as powerful antioxidants and there is significant research being conducted about the health benefits of an anthocyanin-rich diet.

Where can you get these anthocyanins?

Plants rich in anthocyanins are part of the Vaccinium species, which includes, cranberry, bilberry and of course Wild Blueberries. {Tweet this} But other great sources of anthocyanin include black raspberry, red raspberry, blackberry, blackcurrant, cherry, Concord grape and red cabbage.

We know you can eat Wild Blueberries, but what about the leaves?

Yes, the whole blueberry plant is good for you! The berries are available year-round in the freezer section, where their freshness is frozen at the peak of flavor and antioxidant power. The leaves are also available year-round and can be used for high-antioxidant tea! A delicious tea is available from Highland Organics.

david yarborough

David E. Yarborough is the wild blueberry specialist with Cooperative Extension and professor of horticulture in the School of Food and Agriculture at the University of Maine, where he has worked for the past 35 years. He attended the University of Maine where he received a B.S. degree in wildlife management in 1975 and an M.S. degree in resource utilization 1978. He received his Ph.D. degree in Plant and Soil Science in 1991 from the University of Massachusetts. His research subject dealt with weed-crop competition and shifts in species distributions in Maine’s wild blueberry fields with the use of herbicides. He now does research on developing chemical and cultural strategies for controlling weeds, and works with wild blueberry growers in Maine and Canada to educate them on best management practices that will enable them to increase their efficiency of production and their profitability, so that this industry may continue to remain competitive in the world marketplace. He has published well over 200 research and Extension publications dealing with wild blueberries and with weeds. He was recognized by the IR-4 program when he received the Meritorious Service Award in 2006 and 35 year service award from the University of Maine in 2014.

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