Project returning Maine mountain to its blueberry roots



WINTHROP — When people come to Mount Pisgah, it’s often to walk up and around the small mountain.

If they’re feeling adventurous, they climb the 60-foot fire tower at the top, which on a clear day offers views of Mount Washington to the west and the Camden Hills to the east. The mountain’s name, Pisgah, comes from the Hebrew word for “lookout.”

Jean-Luc Theriault, stewardship director at Kennebec Land Trust, examines a highbush blueberry plant on Mount Pisgah. The land trust trimmed trees to expose the fruit to sunlight. The mountain also has a few lowbush blueberry plants, he said.

Jean-Luc Theriault, stewardship director at Kennebec Land Trust, examines a highbush blueberry plant on Mount Pisgah. The land trust trimmed trees to expose the fruit to sunlight. The mountain also has a few lowbush blueberry plants, he said. 

Photos by Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

A blueberry grows recently atop Mount Pisgah in Winthrop.

A blueberry grows recently atop Mount Pisgah in Winthrop. 

Staff photo by Andy Molloy


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But there’s a project underway that could soon bring people here not just to gaze at the surrounding vistas, but to peer in on the mountain’s flora, and maybe even find Maine’s most famous fruit.

Highbush blueberries once flourished on and around Mount Pisgah, according to conservationists with the Kennebec Land Trust, an organization that manages 4,660 acres of land in central Maine, including Winthrop’s Mount Pisgah. The wild fruit grew because settlers who began arriving in the Winthrop area in the 18th century cleared the mountain for farmland, allowing sun to shine on swaths of earth that had been shady forest for thousands of years.

But the blueberry bushes still growing on Mount Pisgah have flowered less and less in recent years. That’s because local conservation efforts have allowed second-growth oaks and pines to again thrive, and they keep sunlight from reaching the lower layer of vegetation where blueberry bushes grow.

“Sun is the source of all energy,” said Dave Yarborough, a blueberry specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “If the blueberry plants don’t get sun, they don’t get energy and they can’t make fruit.”

Jim Connors, a Bangor native and a volunteer steward with the Kennebec Land Trust, first heard about the blueberries on Mount Pisgah when he moved to central Maine in the early 1970s.

“Our neighbors always mentioned picking blueberries,” recalled Connors, who now lives in North Monmouth near the Mount Pisgah trailhead and grows blueberries in his dooryard.

So about two years ago, after Kennebec Land Trust opened a new, 1.6-mile path up Mount Pisgah – aptly named the Blueberry Trail – Connors suggested clearing a small section of the forest halfway up the mountain to allow blueberries to again grow in abundance.

Officials with the Kennebec Land Trust agreed to the plan. They found a volunteer, Mike Simoneau of Monmouth, to clear 4 acres of trees on Mount Pisgah. Simoneau and other volunteers completed much of that work last winter and spring, and the land trust now expects the restored field to begin producing fruit in the fall of 2017, said stewardship director Jean-Luc Theriault.

“It’ll be for the community eventually,” Theriault said, “so families can come up and pick berries.”

Next steps for the project include pruning the blueberry bushes on Mount Pisgah to promote growth, and continuing to clear trees and other plants as they sprout. The oak trees that Simoneau felled will be removed for firewood, while the pines will be left to decompose.

Highbush blueberry plants can grow up to 6 feet, but Mount Pisgah is also host to a few lowbush blueberry plants, Theriault said. Lowbush plants grow up to 2 feet and account for a far larger chunk of Maine’s iconic blueberry industry.

Yarborough, the University of Maine blueberry specialist, estimated that there are 44,000 acres of commercial lowbush blueberries in Maine, concentrated largely along the coast, and just 200 acres of highbush blueberry crops.

It’s not clear to those who have worked on the Mount Pisgah project whether the highbush blueberries were naturally occurring or planted by settlers many years ago.

“There’s no evidence of people planting them, so as far as we know, they’re all natural,” said Toby Smith, 20, a Kennebec Land Trust intern who researched the history of blueberry picking on Mount Pisgah as part of a project this summer. The project by Smith, a Manchester native who now attends the University of Vermont, will result in a brochure that explains that history. The brochure will eventually be available at the trailhead and in the Kennebec Land Trust office.

In the brochure, Smith included the perspectives of several older local residents who either picked berries themselves or farmed on the property around the mountain. One person interviewed by Smith was Eva Smith of Readfield, his grandmother, whose family went picking there twice a week in the 1960s.

“I actually learned that by accident,” Toby Smith recounted. “I brought up that I was doing this project, and she said she picked blueberries there when she was younger.”

But as Smith noted in a draft version of his brochure, “their picking years were cut short by the continuous growth of forest.”

His grandmother did transplant several plants to her own property, where they now produce fruit ever year, he noted, and “her homemade blueberry muffins are a testament to just how delicious a wild blueberry can be.”

Some blueberries still grow on Mount Pisgah – to the delight of Tim Williams of Boston, who was vacationing in Litchfield and hiking Pisgah on a recent morning.

“I got all excited when I saw the blueberries and said, ‘A blueberry on the Blueberry Trail!’ ” Williams said.

Told that the 4-acre field where he was taking a rest break would soon be producing more blueberries, he said, “This is great, a real public service.”