Buying or Starting Huckleberry Plants
Because huckleberries are not yet grown widely in cultivation, few nurseries carry them. Several nurseries in the western United States that specialize in native plants sell seedlings or transplants. Be aware that Solanum melanocerasum (a.k.a. S. nigrum guineense), found in the tomato family, is sold by some nurseries under the name “garden huckleberry.” Garden huckleberries are annual plants that grow rapidly and produce attractive bushes. They are unrelated to blueberries or huckleberries, however, and produce a very different fruit that some people find unpalatable.
When purchasing nursery stock, try to obtain plants from seed sources with elevations and climates similar to your own. The same precaution applies if you are collecting plants, seeds, or cuttings from the wild. If huckleberries grow naturally on or near your site, collect there. Growing species native to your area will probably offer the greatest chance for success.
All of the species discussed here are rhizomatous, although V. ovalifolium is less so than most. What appears as a bush is often little more than a branch sticking up from an underground stem to which few roots are attached. For that reason, mature plants transplanted from the wild often die. Vaccinium deliciosum and V. ovalifolium generally have dense root systems and transplant with relative ease. Mature V. membranaceum is very difficult to transplant successfully. The other species fall somewhere in between. Collect dormant plants from late fall through late winter. Dig a root ball large enough to fill a three- to five-gallon pot, disturbing the roots as little as possible. Use a peat moss potting soil to fill in around the root ball in the pot. Grow the huckleberries in pots for one to two years before transplanting to the field. Find out about regulations and permits before collecting plants from state, federal, or tribal lands.
Horticultural plants are often started from cuttings. Doing so allows you to clone a plant with particularly desirable characteristics. Unfortunately, little is known about propagating western huckleberries using cuttings. Vaccinium membranaceum can be grown from rhizome cuttings, but stem cuttings usually root poorly. Stem cuttings from V. deliciosum, reportedly, root somewhat better. Collect rhizomes in late winter or early spring. Cut the rhizomes into four-inch sections and bury them in sand placed in shallow nursery flats. Do not apply rooting compounds to the rhizomes. Keep the sand moist by placing the flats into a misting bed or cover them with clear plastic and mist the flats with a fine spray frequently enough to keep the sand moist. After the cuttings develop roots and shoots, transplant them into one-gallon nursery pots filled with a peat moss-based potting soil. Collect stem cuttings in late spring and early summer. Root them in a light rooting medium under mist. Treating the cuttings with a rooting compound may or may not improve rooting percentages.
All species discussed here can easily be grown from seed and begin flowering three to five years after sowing. Using ripe fruit, extract the seeds by squashing the berries through a fine mesh kitchen strainer into a pan or dish tub. When processing more than about one-half pint of berries, blend the fruit with water in a kitchen blender long enough to break the skins. Then pour the contents of the blender into a kitchen strainer and rinse with a stream or spray of water. The seeds are tiny and pass through most strainers readily. Discard the pulp in the strainer and carefully pour the water out of the tub, leaving the seeds and pulp that have settled to the bottom. Rinse the seeds from the tub into a jar or drinking glass. Hollow and damaged seeds are light and float off with the skins. Fill the jar or glass with cool tap water and allow the heavy seeds to settle for several seconds before pouring out the water, floating skins, and hollow seeds. Continue until all that remain are the viable seeds at the bottom of the container.
You can plant freshly extracted, undried seeds immediately. To save seeds for later planting, spread them on coffee filters and allow them to dry for one week in subdued light at room temperature. Seal the seeds inside small, airtight plastic bags and store in a refrigerator at about 35 degrees F (do not freeze them). Seeds extracted and stored this way remain viable for at least seven years.
Huckleberry seeds do not require stratification or other pretreatment before sowing. Seed cleaned as described above usually germinates at rates around 60% to 70%. Vaccinium parvifolium, reportedly, has low germination rates. To maximize growth and survival during the first year, sow your seeds about the first of January and grow them indoors or in a greenhouse. Sow the seeds on firm, moist peat moss-based potting soil that contains sand, pumice, or perlite for drainage. Place three or four seeds on the soil surface in each pot and cover with 1/8 inch of clean sand. Mist as frequently as necessary to keep the soil moist but not soaked. Use a hose end fine mist nozzle or hand-held spray bottle. Direct streams of water will wash the tiny seeds out of the soil. If the soil dries out, even briefly, huckleberry seedlings often die.
Set the pots in a location with daytime temperatures between 70 degrees and 80 degrees F and night temperatures between 50 degrees and 60degrees F. The seeds must be exposed to light in order to germinate properly. Sufficient light penetrates one-eighth inch of sand to promote germination. When the seedlings emerge in four to six weeks, place them under fluorescent lights for 12 to 16 hours per day. Cool white, wide-spectrum, and plant-grow fluorescent tubes all give good results. Keep the daytime temperature between 70 degrees and 80 degrees F and the nighttime temperature between 50 degrees and 60 degrees F. When the seedlings are one-half to one inch tall, thin to leave the largest plant per pot.
Fertilize young seedlings every one to two weeks with water-soluble fertilizer. Commonly available 20-20-20 liquid fertilizers work well when applied from spring through early to mid August. Use one-half the label rates for seedlings in their first year. Avoid over-fertilizing and water heavily every four weeks to rinse excess salts out of the potting soil.
Seedlings normally remain in containers for two years. Fertilize containerized one-year-old and older plants as described above, but use full strength solutions according to label directions. In mid August, move greenhouse plants outdoors and stop fertilizing to permit them to acclimate for winter. Huckleberry leaves turn red when the plants are exposed to short days and cool temperatures. Continue to water as often as necessary to keep the soil moist but not waterlogged.
Huckleberry seedlings can be kept actively growing throughout their first winter under lights indoors or in a greenhouse. Doing so shortens the time to field planting. You may also let the seedlings enter dormancy. To do this, keep the plants outdoors until temperatures drop to near 32 degrees F. Young huckleberry seedlings and containerized plant roots are easily killed by freezing temperatures. One option for winter storage is to place containerized plants into a cooler. A refrigerator works well, provided you prevent the plant temperature from dropping below freezing if the refrigerator is outside or in an unheated building. Check refrigerated plants regularly to monitor temperatures and irrigate, as necessary, to prevent the soil from drying out. Dormant plants do not need light.
You may also overwinter containerized huckleberries outside by burying them one to two inches above the tops of their containers with sawdust, preferably on the north side of a building. This method works better with established plants several years old than it does with young seedlings. Do not mulch with straw or grass clippings; doing so attracts mice that feed on the seedlings. Even with sawdust mulch, placing rodent traps and baits in and among the huckleberries is a good practice. Water the plants well before putting them into outdoor storage. For outdoor growing and storage areas, protect the huckleberries from deer and rabbits.
This fact sheet is contributed by Dr. Danny L. Barney. Dr. Barney is a Professor of Horticulture and Extension Horticulturist specializing in small fruit and ornamental crops, and serves as Superintendent of the University of Idaho Sandpoint Research & Extension Center.