In the days leading up to Canada Day, The Globe is teaming up with Facebook for an unscientific survey of Canadians about what our true national symbols should be. We've also asked a few Canadians to share their picks. Today, David Suzuki makes his pitch.
The best thing about the wild blueberry is our social relationship with it.
Canadians from Newfoundland to the Yukon harvest the fruit of this ethnobotanical icon, in berry-picking parties in the bush, with parents, cousins, aunts and uncles - eating as they go. Turning those pails of fruit into jam, wine or pancakes is another opportunity to socialize and celebrate; it's a ritual of late summer and early fall, when the berries are ripe and full of flavour.
Is the wild blueberry really Canada's national plant?
The blueberry links us in other ways. It is indelibly identified with the boreal forest, that vast belt of green that is our country's heart and lungs, pumping out clean air, absorbing carbon dioxide and providing an immense haven for wildlife. There are several species of blueberry. They are of the genus Vaccinium. Common Canadian ones include Vaccinium myrtilloides (velvet leaf blueberry) and Vaccinium angustifolium (low bush blueberry). They are native to Canada. As far as anyone can tell, they've been growing here forever.
Wild blueberries are a major food source for another national icon, bears. For example, researchers have found that the reproductive success of female black bears is dependent on the availability and abundance of berries. The bears gorge themselves on the fruit late in the summer when the berries are ripe. According to Jeff Gailus, author of The Grizzly Manifesto: "A single grizzly bear can eat as many as 20,000 berries in a single day, its nimble lips capable of picking each berry without so much as disturbing a leaf."
Perhaps for this alone, the wild blueberry deserves to be our national plant.
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Nutritionally, this native plant is unmatched. It contains vitamins A, C and E, calcium, potassium and magnesium and is rich in antioxidants. It's been a key part of the traditional diet of First Nations and Métis for generations - eaten fresh, boiled to make tea or mashed into cakes. It's also been used for treatment of diabetes and headaches.
As a commercial crop, blueberries occupy more than half of all Canadian fruit acreage. And we aren't the only ones who value our blue bounty. Some Canadian species of blueberry are shipped as far away as South America and Australia.
But its overseas admirers never get to experience what so many Canadians can still enjoy -- the power of the wild.
The Globe is teaming up with Facebook to ask Canadians about what symbolizes Canada
In fact there is nothing quite like taking a walk through fragrant woods and finding a sunlit patch laden with lovely dark fruit that the bears have left for us.
Harvesting wild foods like berries and fish reminds us that the things that keep us alive and healthy come directly from nature and not artificial human systems, and that we need to protect wild places in order to keep receiving these gifts.
Canada wouldn't be the same without the blueberry.
The Vancouver-based David Suzuki Foundation marks its 20th anniversary in September.
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