There’s nothing like the taste of fresh huckleberries in the summertime. Lucky for us in the Pacific Northwest, we have three species of huckleberries to choose from: black huckleberry, red huckleberry and evergreen huckleberry. Huckleberries are in the Heath family, which includes other edibles like blueberries, wintergreen, cranberry and salal. Heath family members commonly like acidic soils, have alternate leaf and branching patterns, and have bell or urn-shaped flowers.
Black huckleberry, Vaccinium membranaceum, as its name suggests, produces black berries that are said to be one of the most delicious in the area. Its flowers are creamy pink to yellow pink and urn-shaped. The leaves are deciduous with a fine toothed margin and the shrub grows to 1.5 meters tall. The Black Huckleberry thrives in areas which have recently experienced wild fires. Due to modern day fire suppression, critical habitat for this shrub has dwindled. The berries are ready to pick around late summer or early fall.
Red huckleberry, Vaccinium parvifolium, is also named for the color of its berries. Red and translucent, they are about 1 centimeter across. The leaves of Red huckleberry are not toothed and are up to 3 cm long. The shrub grows to 4 m tall. Its flowers are greenish-yellowish to pink, and urn or bell shaped. Red huckleberry is the dominant huckleberry of the Oregon coast ranges, growing at low to middle elevations. It is found in coniferous forests, and it loves to grow atop decaying stumps and logs. Red huckleberry was popular with all native peoples of its range. Dried individually or mashed into cakes, they were stored for winter. They could be so plentiful that a rake-like implement was used in some instances to harvest these berries. This huckleberry plant also has medicinal uses, such as a remedy for sore throat and inflamed gums. This was done by using the leaves or bark in a decoction that was gargled. Due to their resemblance to salmon eggs, the berries were also used as fish bait.
Evergreen huckleberry, Vaccinium ovatum, is an evergreen shrub which produces dark purplish-black berries. The berries begin to ripen in early fall but persist into the winter. Evergreen huckleberry leaves have toothed edges and are shiny green and leathery. The flowers are pink and bell shaped, and the shrub grows to 4 m tall. The habitat of the evergreen huckleberry is coniferous forests at low elevations, especially in openings or on edges. They are commonly found in the salt spray zone and near tidal zones. Some native peoples traveled far and wide to gather the berries of Evergreen huckleberry due to their delicious taste.
Huckleberries are a great treat in the late summer or early fall, and can be enjoyed in many ways. Eat them fresh off the bush or take them home and bake them into any number of recipes like huckleberry muffins, huckleberry cakes or huckleberry pies. They also make great jams and jellies, or you could simply dry them like raisins. Huckleberries also freeze well. To freeze them, spread them out on a cookie tray and place them in the freezer. This keeps them from sticking together in one large mass. Then place them in a freezer safe container and place them back in the freezer.
This summer, take a hike into your local woods to look for these amazing shrubs and to enjoy the taste of their plentiful berries. Will you too become a Huckleberry Hound?
References: Plants of the Pacific Northwest, Pojar/Mackinnon
Botany in a Day, Thomas J. Elpel