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Information on Huckleberry Plants

Introduction

We use the name huckleberry for many different plants throughout North America. Some of the best known huckleberries are native to the eastern and southeastern United States and belong to four species found in the genus Gaylussacia. This genus is not found in the western United States. Western huckleberries belong to the genus Vaccinium. Their flowers and fruits resemble domestic highbush and lowbush blueberries, which are also Vaccinium species. Western huckleberries, however, are in a different taxonomic section (Myrtillus) than highbush and lowbush blueberries (Cyanococcus). The primary difference is that huckleberries produce single berries in the axils of leaves on new shoots. Highbush and lowbush blueberries develop clusters of berries on one-year-old wood, producing greater yields than huckleberries. Both diploids (2n=24) and tetraploids (2n=48) are found in section Myrtillus.

The section Myrtillus contains eight species, commonly called huckleberries, blueberries, bilberries, and/or whortleberries. All produce edible fruit, and most were food sources for Native American peoples in western North America. Although no species in sect. Myrtillus have been domesticated, several species show potential for commercial cultivation.

Douglas ex Hooker Evergreen huckleberry Cascade or blue huckleberry
Oval-leaved blueberry Red huckleberry or red bilberry Bilberry
Dwarf red whortleberry Bog bilberry

While huckleberry domestication has potential, most attempts to grow huckleberries commercially in fields during the past century have failed. Research is underway to develop plants and cultural practices that will allow huckleberries to be grown domestically. The following recommendations are intended to provide a starting point for experiments in huckleberry production. Management and harvest of wild huckleberry stands may be viable commercial alternatives to field production.

Vaccinium membranaceum Douglas ex Hooker, known as the black, big, or thin-leaved huckleberry, grows throughout forested areas in Idaho, western Montana, western Wyoming, Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia. Small disjunct populations occur in Utah, California, Arizona, and Michigan. This species is sometimes called the globe huckleberry in Montana and some taxonomists identify plants in the eastern Rocky Mountains as Vaccinium globulare Rydberg. In 2000, Idaho designated huckleberries, of which black huckleberry is by far the most common in Idaho, as the state fruit. This species served as an especially important source of food for Native American peoples throughout western North America and the dried berries were used for winter food and trade.

Vaccinium membranaceum is found at elevations between about 2,000 and 11,500 feet, with many productive sites located between 4,000 and 6,000 feet elevation. This tetraploid is commonly found along forest roads and in clear cuts and burns about ten to fifteen years old, often growing among true firs (Abies sp.), hemlock (Tsuga sp.), and bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax Michx.). Vaccinium membranaceum grows from one to six feet tall and produces flavorful berries up to one-half inch in diameter. Color ranges from glossy or glaucous black to purple to red, with rare white berries. Vaccinium membranaceum is, by far, the most widely commercialized western huckleberry used for fruit and is harvested extensively from the wild. Vaccinium membranaceum is adapted to cool, short seasons and high elevations. When grown at low elevations, the plants often deacclimate during winter warm spells or early spring and are damaged by subsequent freezes. The early-blooming plants are also susceptible to late spring frosts. Vaccinium membranaceum is rhizomatous, has a sparse root system, and mature plants seldom survive transplanting.

Cascade or blue huckleberry (Vaccinium deliciosum Piper) grows on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and in the Cascade Mountains from northern California into British Columbia. It is found at elevations between 1,900 and 6,600 feet in subalpine coniferous forests and alpine meadows. Vaccinium deliciosum will grow on wetter sites than V. membranaceum and is often found around the edges of ponds and old lake bottoms. This tetraploid species grows about two feet tall and bears bright blue berries to about one-half inch in diameter. As its botanical name, deliciosum, implies, V. deliciosum produces especially flavorful berries. Research at the University of Idaho and Washington State University identified 31 aromatic flavor chemicals in the fruits. Vaccinium deliciosum, despite its outstanding flavor and large fruit size, was, and continues to be, harvested to a lesser degree than V. membranaceum because it has a smaller range and is less dominant within its range than its black-fruited cousin. Also like V. membranaceum, V. deliciosum is native to higher elevations and can be difficult to grow below 2,000 feet. Although rhizomatous, V. deliciosum has a dense root system and transplants easily.

Oval-leaved blueberry, also known as Alaska blueberry, oval-leaved bilberry, and highbush blueberry, is common along the coastal and Cascade mountain ranges from California north to Alaska, with small populations in northern Idaho and west to South Dakota, Michigan, Newfoundland, and New Brunswick. These plants are also native to Russia. Older taxonomic keys split the populations into two species (V. ovalifolium Smith and V. alaskaense Howell), although a recent key designates all plants as V. ovalifolium. These vigorous tetraploids are found from sea level to 6,500 feet, usually in light to moderate shade at the edges of deciduous and coniferous forest clearings and along streams. The bushes grow two to12 feet tall and bear attractive, one-half inch diameter, glaucous blue berries that are rich in anthocyanins. The berry flavor is mild to sour due to low esters and ketones. Although used by Native Americans, the fruits were not as popular as other Vaccinium species because of its relatively poor flavor and the berries are sometimes gritty and rot more easily than other species. Strong points are the bushes’s vigor and upright habit, combined with crown-type root systems that make transplanting relatively easy. Vaccinium ovalifolium readily forms naturally-occurring hybrids with V. deliciosum and V. membranaceum, producing plants with desirable bush and fruit characteristics.

Red huckleberry or red bilberry (Vaccinium parvifolium Smith) is native to California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, primarily from the Cascade Mountain range westward. There are also small populations reported in eastern British Columbia. Elevations range from sea level to about 3,300 feet. This vigorous and productive diploid grows from three to more than 20 feet tall. It is common along roadsides and in forest clearings, and can also be found under light to moderate shade at the edges of clearings. The red, waxy fruits were popular in jams and preserves with all coastal Indian tribes and remain popular with recreational pickers. The berries are somewhat sour, but make excellent pastries and preserves. Commercial use of V. parvifolium is presently quite limited, but the species’ vigorous growth, ease of harvest, and site adaptability provide opportunities.

Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus Linnaeus) is also known as dwarf huckleberry, dwarf bilberry, and whortleberry. This is the species for which the taxonomic section, Myrtillus, is named. Vaccinium myrtillus is native to North America, Europe, and Asia. Small, scattered populations are found in the central Cascades of Oregon and Washington, the Rocky Mountains of northern Idaho and western Montana, and the southern Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. In the northwestern United States and western Canada, this small diploid is found in open, moist, coniferous woods above 3,000 feet elevation. The rhizomatous bushes grow six to 24 inches tall and bear flavorful one-fourth inch diameter black, purple, or dark blue berries. Vaccinium myrtillus fruits are popular in Europe and are known to possess medicinal compounds, including antioxidants and compounds beneficial to vascular health. Berries in Europe are extensively harvested from wild stands. In North America, bilberries were used by the Kootenay, Carrier, Shuswap, and other Native American tribes. The small plant and fruit sizes create challenges for commercialization in North America. Dwarf huckleberry (Vaccinium caespitosum Michaux) is also known as dwarf blueberry, dwarf bilberry, and dwarf whortleberry. Vaccinium caespitosum is widely distributed on dry and wet acidic sites along the Cascade and Rocky Mountains from Mexico to Alaska, across southern Canada, in the Great Lakes region, New England, and eastern Canada. Elevations range from sea level to 11,000 feet. This small diploid grows three to 24 inches tall. The berries (up to one-fourth inch in diameter) are bright blue, glaucous, and have excellent flavor. They were extensively harvested by Native Americans in the United States and Canada. The commercial potential of V. caespitosum is limited by its small plant and berry sizes. Strong points are desirable fruit flavor and adaptability to many growing regions. The species may have potential as an edible, ornamental groundcover in landscapes.

Dwarf red whortleberry (Vaccinium scoparium Leiberg ex Coville) is also known as small-leaved huckleberry, grouseberry, and red alpine blueberry. It is widely distributed along the Cascade and northern Rocky Mountains in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Wyoming, and British Columbia, with smaller populations in Utah, Nevada, California, Colorado, and Alberta. This small diploid (three to 18 inches tall) is found in alpine and subalpine meadows and at edges of coniferous woods from 3,000 to 11,000 feet elevations. The plants are rhizomatous and often form dense, extensive colonies. The soft, tart, bright red berries, up to one-fourth inch diameter, have fair to good flavor and were gathered and eaten raw by the Kootenay, Okanogan, Shuswap, and other Indian tribes. Harvesting was probably done using wooden or fish bone combs. Small fruit size, low yields, and difficult harvesting make commercial prospects for V. scoparium questionable.

Bog bilberry (Vaccinium ulignosum Linnaeus) is also known as bilberry, tundra bilberry, alpine bilberry, and ground hurts. This species is related to those in sect. Myrtillus, described above, but is found in Vaccinium sect. Vaccinium. Vaccinium ulignosum is widespread, being native between 40o and 80o north latitude in North America, Asia, Europe, and Greenland. These highly adaptable plants grow from one inch to three feet tall and can be found on dry or wet, organic or inorganic, acidic soils from sea level to 6,000 feet elevations. Naturally-occurring diploids, tetraploids, hexaploids, and possible triploids have been reported. In Europe and Asia, the fruits are harvested from the wild for home and commercial use. Like its blue-fruited cousins in sect. Myrtillus, V. ulignosum is rich in anthocyanins. The bright blue, one-fourth inch diameter berries have good to very good flavor. This species appears to be well suited to cultivation and has demonstrated high survival rates on poorly drained soils in northern Idaho field trials.

Evergreen huckleberry, V. ovatum Pursh, is a western North America native found in Vaccinium sect. Pyxothamnus. We mention it here because it is related to the huckleberries and bilberries of sect. Myrtillus and is harvested commercially. Vaccinium ovatum, also known as shot, blackwinter, and California huckleberry, grows along the pacific coast from southern California to northern British Columbia. This vigorous diploid forms dense stands of evergreen bushes one to 12 feet tall. Black berries up to three-eights inch in diameter, ripen sporadically from September through November and persist on the bushes for a month or more. Vaccinium ovatum is harvested commercially from the wild, not for its fruit, but for its stems and leaves that are used in floral arrangements. Commercial plantings were established along the Pacific coast during the early to mid 1900s. Little is known about this species’ site adaptability or cold hardiness.


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. The University of Idaho provides equal opportunity in education and employment on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, age, disability, or status as a Vietnam era veteran, as required by state and federal laws.