Larry Lyons: Solving the great huckleberry mysteryPublished 8:15am Wednesday, September 16, 2009
It occurred to me that I didn’t even know exactly what huckleberries are. Are they different from blueberries or one and the same? If they are different are there any still around? I’ve never heard of anybody going huckleberry picking or even casual mention of huckleberries. At our Marcellus farm there’s a bog that for a century the wife’s family has referred to as “the huckleberry marsh.” She remembers as a child her whole family making regular sojourns out onto the quivering bog to pick huckleberries.
Apparently the plants are now gone for I’ve mucked around in this bog for decades and have never seen anything resembling what I assume a huckleberry looks like. Now I’m thinking maybe huckleberries are in the process of blinking out like many other species. Did we lose a rare plant from our property?
I figured a quick, easy session of ‘Net surfing would turn up all I needed to know about huckleberries. Holy Moly! It was immediately evident that the term huckleberry is little more than a generic word for a whole world of plant forms. After nearly an hour I pinned down that what’s commonly referred to as black huckleberries are the most common and highly prized of the myriad of huckleberry species. But then it surfaced that just about every region has its own form of “black huckleberry.” Differing species of so called black huckleberries occur anywhere from the far west to the high Arctic to Georgia. And along the way the scientific tomes tangle them up with wild blueberries, turning this whole huckleberry/blueberry thing into a layman’s nightmare.
Realizing common names weren’t going to get me anywhere but more confused I capitulated and went with scientific names. You know, the Latin genus, species thing. That began narrowing things down. I won’t subject you to the Latin gobbledegook, but just suffice to say there is a quite common wild huckleberry here in the east in which the berries are prized for all the typical berry stuff – fresh, jams, pies, etc. The berry is purplish black and similar to a blueberry in size and taste, though it apparently lacks that dusty powder look of the blueberry. My problem was the bush from which it grows is only one to three feet tall and prefers well drained, rocky soil, though it will tolerate some wetness. Our “huckleberry marsh” is a floating bog so this doesn’t fit.
I further challenged the wife’s memory. She recalled the plants being taller than her father and bushy. They actually crawled around in natural tunnels amongst the bushes. She went on to say the berries were in clusters, remembering being mad that her father knocked the clusters off into his hat and then the kids had to clean all the twigs and leaves out later.
Huckleberries grow singly. She also said the berries had that dusty look like blueberries. I found the easiest differentiation between huckleberries and blueberries is that blueberries have miniscule, undetectable seeds while all huckleberry species have 10 large seeds that make them a bit troublesome to eat. Wife recalled no seed spitting.
Hmmm. More ‘Net surfing but this time in the direction of blueberries. We all know the low-growing, wild blueberries that occur in dense colonies all across northern Michigan. But these are only a foot or so tall and typically grow in well drained, sandy, wooded areas. Not gon’na work for our marsh. More surfing.
Then voila! I finally hit pay dirt. I stumbled onto Vaccinium corymbosum, the Northern High Bush Blueberry. It fit perfectly – wild growing, up to twelve feet tall, dense thickets and moist, acidic soil. Our ancient “huckleberry marsh” wasn’t a huckleberry marsh after all. So is this elusive High Bush Blueberry now rare? Not hardly. It is the base stock cultivated by nearly all the commercial blueberry growers in the Eastern U.S.
Larry Lyons writes a weekly outdoor column for Leader Publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org