Holiday Hill  by Edith M. Patch

Heath Bells and Berries

H EATH is a name for open uncultivated land. Many kinds of plants cannot live on certain heaths. The soil is not right for them. Other plants, however, thrive in such ground. Indeed, one family of plants is called "Heath Family" because so many of its members grow on heaths.

Blueberries belong to the Heath Family. As you already know, there are blueberries growing on Holiday Hill. Some of them, which are close to the old stones, are neighborly enough to reach through cracks in the crumbling granite.


Blueberry bushes pushed their stems through cracks in the crumbling granite

There are blueberry bushes growing away from the rocks, too. Their roots have run in all directions until one whole slope of the hill is covered with them.

No man planted these blueberry bushes. They were growing there long before any man found them. For many years the berries were picked and the seeds were scattered without any help from people.

Bears and smaller furry animals, with a fondness for sweet fruit, had countless pleasant picnics on the sunny hillside.

Sometimes gulls flew away from the sea and the shore to the hill where they gathered blueberries for a change. Fruit-eating song birds came often to feast there.

Doubtless both the furry and the feathered berry-pickers scattered seeds here and there; and doubtless some of these seeds grew to make more bushes. But, except for such seeds as they chanced to drop, animals of those sorts could do little to aid the blueberry plants.

But there were certain other animals that helped in a different and more important way. These were the insects that hovered over the heath while the blossoms dangled like little pink and creamy bells.

Among the visiting insects, none were more abundant and useful than bees. For bees flew to the bushes to drink the sweet nectar they found in the blossoms; and while they were sipping nectar they did a good deed to the plants that fed them. The service which bees and some other insect guests performed was to carry pollen from blossom to blossom.

Each blueberry flower needed pollen from another blueberry flower to enable its juicy fruit and its seeds to grow. Wind could not carry the pollen for them and drop it into the nodding bell-shaped heath blossoms. Nothing could help these plants in this way except the insects. Such heath plants and insects have lived together for ages. They need each other.

Of course these insects never knew they were helping the blueberries. They simply felt thirsty for nectar and went to the blossoms to drink.

When a visiting bee thrust her strong tongue up into a blueberry blossom, she moved the parts inside that held the pollen. The golden dust poured down upon her and stuck to her body. Then when she reached another blossom and brushed against its moist sticky stigma, some of the pollen came off her body and stayed on the stigma.

All through blossom time thousands of bees have been carrying their dusty loads of pollen year after year. But, of course, the birds and the beasts have never known that they had little insects to thank for all the sweet juicy berries they picked on the hillside!

The open blueberry slope of Holiday Hill once had trees growing on it so close together that but little sunlight could get through their branches. Some of these trees were cut and some were burned by white men. It is quite likely that some were burned by Indians before that. And perhaps lightning may have set some blazing fires that spread over the hillside.


Lightning may have set some blazing fires

No place could have been more inviting to blueberry bushes than such sunny land free from overhanging branches. Their roots and underground stems reached into the soil that had been cleared by fires. More and more new bushes sprouted from the old ones until, after a long time, these plants covered most of the ground that had once been shaded by trees.

It has been several years since a bear was seen on Holiday Hill, though certain smaller furry animals still come and go. So do birds with a liking for good sweet fruit. Their happy chirps may be heard from time to time.

There is another cheerful sound, too, that often floats about the hillside nowadays. The laughter of children is in the air—children with berry-stained fingers and faces.

Even though they spend much of their time among the blueberries, they find other plants of the Heath Family, too.

Bearberry shrubs with trailing stems grow in rocky places. Their red fruits are pretty to look at, but the children do not find them good to eat.


Bearberry blossoms are bell‑like

Another member of the Heath Family grows well in the granite gravel on the hillside. Spicy red checkerberries may be found on this plant almost any time of year. They have a pleasant flavor in the late summer before they are full-grown. They stay on the plant all winter and are still good early the next summer when they are nearly a year old. These berries are firmer than blueberries and not so juicy.


Checkerberry, or wintergreen, or teaberry

Checkerberry plants, too, have insects to thank for all their seeds. And no animal could enjoy the rosy fruit if it were not for the little pollen-bearers.

Of course the feathered and furry berry-pickers do not know about heath blossoms and insects. Children, however, are wiser and can learn to think thankfully of little wild bees whenever they gather tasty heath berries.

But the fruit is not the only good-flavored part of a checkerberry plant. When the leaves are young and tender, they are quite as good as the berries to eat. The leaves are fragrant. "Aromatic" is the word that a botanist uses when he speaks of checkerberry leaves.

That is a pleasant-sounding word for spicy leaves. Wintergreen is another name for a checkerberry. That is a good name for it, as its leaves stay green all winter.

You do not really need to eat checkerberry leaves or fruit to learn about wintergreen flavor. You can find out, if you wish, by eating certain kinds of candy.

But, of course, it is much pleasanter to visit the plants themselves. And while you are there on Holiday Hill, you may like to think that once long ago some Indians climbed that slope and found the same kind of heath plants growing.

For Indians used to gather the aromatic wintergreen leaves and steep them in hot water for tea. And if you wish to learn how that sort of drink tastes, why not make some for yourself? As you sip it you may be interested to know that this member of the Heath Family has still another name and is sometimes called teaberry.