Tart and Tasty Red Huckleberries

Red Huckleberry fruit

Red Huckleberry fruit among foliage

The fourth of July is just around the corner, which means that in the lowlands of western Washington the red huckleberries are ripening. This is one of the first species in the genus to be ready to pick. With their fireworks-red berries dangling under bright green foliage they’re hard to miss when walking through the woods.

Red huckleberry, Vaccinium parvifolium, can produce prodigious quantities of fruit when it gets enough sun. It grows as an understory plant, thriving on decaying woody material in the soil. Often you’ll see them growing out of the top of rotting stumps, feeding on the remnants of old timber. The bushes will tolerate rather deep shade, but under those conditions they tend to be somewhat spindly and don’t produce much fruit.

Red Huckleberries with Trailing Blackberries on Salal

Red Huckleberries w/ Trailing Blackberries on Salal

But bring them out to the forest edge where they get sunlight for much of the day and they’ll grow lush and luxuriant. Since they’re an understory plant, they’ll often spring up following a clearcut and form a dense shrub layer until trees once again reclaim the landscape.

Red Huckleberries in perennial and shrub border

Red Huckleberries in perennial and shrub border

I was out photographing a garden nestled in the woods east of Mount Vernon, Washington this morning and noticed two big and vigorous red huckleberry bushes there. One was part of a perennial and shrub border separating the lawn from the driveway, shown above. The huckleberry is in the middle of the border next to a hemlock. The other was at the back of the house, along the path from the orchard to the hot tub. Out front, the red huckleberry was growing up around an old stump. I couldn’t tell about the one in the back because it was so dense I couldn’t see to the middle of the cluster of stems.

Red huckleberry is often a multi-stemmed shrub. It will grow up to ten feet tall, although it usually doesn’t get quite that big. It prefers to grow in decaying wood. If you plant one and don’t give it those conditions you’ll be disappointed. Like many other members of the Ericaceae, it thrives on acidic soil. It’s primarily a lowland plant, growing native from coastal Alaska down to Sonoma County, California. Most often you’ll find it on the west side of the coast range or Cascades, but it’s also found on the slopes of the Sierras.

Red Huckleberry blossoms

Red Huckleberry blossoms

The twigs of red huckleberry are greenish. It’s a semi-evergreen shrub, often holding at least some of its foliage long into the winter although in other circumstances the foliage turns various shades of red and orange before falling to the ground. Red huckleberry is an important fall and winter forage for elk and deer. The berries are eaten by a wide variety of birds and small mammals, as well as being harvested by humans.

Red huckleberries are tart and delicious. I’ve only eaten them fresh, right off the bush, but friends have reported that they make excellent jam and pies. I never have enough patience to collect enough to take home and cook. (I have the same problem in my home raspberry patch.) When camping in early summer they’re a tasty treat, especially when you’ve been subsisting on a freeze-dried diet for a few days.

Red huckleberry is available in the nursery trade from American Beauties, among other sources.

Red Huckleberries beside waterfall

Red Huckleberries and Sword Ferns beside a waterfall at Squires Lake, Washington

There are about 25 species of Vaccinium in North America. If you live in one of the many parts of the country where red huckleberry won’t be happy (it doesn’t like a lot of summer heat) then consider one of the species native to your area. Check the USDA Plants database or the Flora of North America for details. For more on red huckleberry and other northwestern Vaccinium species, see my PNW Flowers website.

Since somebody’s bound to ask, what’s the difference between huckleberries and blueberries? As far as I’m concerned it’s just a difference of common name. Some species of native Vacciniums are called blueberries and others are huckleberries. We’ve got red huckleberries and black huckleberries (V. membranaceum) and evergreen huckleberries (V. ovatum), but oval-leaved blueberries (V. ovalifolium) and Cascades blueberries (V. deliciosum). Yes, it’s confusing. But they’re all edible so don’t worry about the name so much.

© 2012, Mark Turner. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us

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About Mark Turner

Mark Turner is a freelance photographer specializing in botanical subjects, especially Northwest wildflowers and gardens.  He photographs extensively for books and magazines both in gardens and in a wide range of native plant environments. He is an avid member of the native plant societies of Washington and Oregon and has more than 25 years of experience exploring for native plants, which he describes at the Turner Photographics Blog. Mark is author of Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest.  He lives in Bellingham, Washington where he also runs a portrait studio photographing families, high school seniors, and pets.

Comments

  1. Donna@Gardens Eye View says:

    Around my area you can find blue huckleberries growing in bogs…I have never seen them and wonder how different they are from actual blueberries which grow there too….
    Donna@Gardens Eye View recently posted..Simply The Best-June

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  2. Mark Turner says:

    Donna, there are definitely species of blueberries that grow in bogs. We even have one with the common name “bog blueberry.” It’s a dense low-growing shrub I’ve found in higher-elevation wetlands, although there is a nice specimen in the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden’s native plant garden in Vancouver so it doesn’t have to be up in the mountains. Other blueberry or huckleberry species prefer drier sites.
    Mark Turner recently posted..Groundcover = Weed?

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  3. Ruth Parnall says:

    The native huckleberry in MA, CT, and NY is Gaylussacia baccata (Black huckleberry)…likes sun and acidic, well drained soil. Haven’t found one fruiting, so I’ve never eaten one, but its rather short stature is that very useful ‘low-shrub’ category in a design.

    Reply
  4. Mark Turner says:

    Gaylussacia is a strictly eastern genus, with eight species in North America. Black huckleberry is the most widely distributed of them. It’s a plant I have no recollection of ever seeing when I lived in West Virginia and spent a lot of time in the woods. Obviously, I missed something, but I left and headed west in my early 20s.
    Mark Turner recently posted..Groundcover = Weed?

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