Huckleberries ~ the elusive fruit

Laura Dean Bennett
Staff Writer
 
To a lot of us, picking berries was a late summer rite of passage.

Sometimes it would be raspberries, sometimes blackberries or blueberries and sometimes, we’d find huckleberries.

You may not hear much these days about huckleberries, but they’re still out there, although it may take some doing to find them.

It’s said that huckleberries got their name from the first European settlers who mistook the plants with small, dark-colored sweet berries for English bilberries or blueberries.

In England, these berries were often called “hurtleberries,” which, after a time, was mispronounced and became “huckleberries.”

Huckleberries are quite venerable- they’re one of the oldest plants on Earth – having been around for more than 12,000 years. 

Many huckleberry hunters are fooled by the look-alike serviceberry.

While serviceberries are edible, they don’t taste as good as huckleberries.

Huckleberries are often confused with a wild blueberry, because differentiating between the two can’t be done by color or size, because these characteristics will vary.

The only surefire way to tell them apart is by their seeds.

A blueberry will contain lots of tiny, soft seeds whereas a huckleberry has exactly 10 larger, crunchy seeds.

Huckleberries taste something like a tart blueberry, and just like a blueberry, they’ll stain fingers and clothes a pretty shade of red. 

There are eight species of huckleberries native to North America.

Western huckleberries are found from Wyoming to Alaska and through Canada at elevations from 2,000 to 11,000 feet.

But there are several varieties which grow in most of the eastern and southern states. 

There’s the black huckleberry – widely distributed across the eastern half of the United States and Canada. 

The dwarf huckleberry is a wetland species that is found in most states along the eastern seaboard. 

Wooly huckleberry, Confederate huckleberry, hairy twig huckleberry and bear huckleberry grow in the south. 

Here in West Virginia, we have the box huckleberry. 

It’s also sometimes called box-leaved whortleberry. 

It’s a dwarf, evergreen shrub which is actually a survivor of the last Ice Age. 

In the spring, as you’re roaming over shady hillsides in mixed pine and oak forests, where other acid-loving plants and trees grow, keep your eyes peeled for huckleberry plants. 

They look like boxwood, with small, glossy leathery leaves. 
 
The flowers will range from white to pink and are urn or bell-shaped.  

Make a note of their location and return in late summer and look for the fruit – which is small, round and hangs in shiny berry-like drupes. 

Due to habitat destruction, the existence of many of these ancient survivors of the Ice Age is threatened.  

The box huckleberry has suffered significant incursion on its territory in Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland; it’s in danger in Virginia and West Virginia and is becoming rare in Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina.

Huckleberries grow in what botanists call colonies.

It’s actually a misleading description, though, because a colony is actually a single plant which usually grows to cover, on average, over eight acres.

A huckleberry colony is self-sterile, meaning that its berries are grown from pollen received from another part of the same plant.

They are slow growers – fruiting and growing by cloning – and spreading only about six inches a year.

Genetic tests by botanists have proven that one large colony, or single plant of box huckleberry, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, covers between 100 and 300 acres.

Native Americans undoubtedly ate them raw, but also dried the berries or smoked them and mashed them into cakes and stored them by wrapping them in leaves.

The colorful juice was used to make a dye.

Huckleberries provided sustenance for the early settlers, who not only used them as food, but also made huckleberry mead and huckleberry ale from them.

Of course, they are an important food source for wildlife.  

Small mammals and birds – including songbirds, ruffed grouse, quail and turkeys – depend on huckleberry fruit.

The berries are a delicacy to bears, as well.

Deer eat the foliage and twigs and butterflies and bees seek the nectar of their Huckleberries are high in vitamin C and offer more antioxidant quality than any other fruit or vegetable.

A medicinal tea can be brewed from their dried leaves and is, these days, commercially produced and sold in tea bag form.

Like blueberries, huckleberries are great in cobblers, pancakes, waffles, muffins and the gamut of baked goods, but they are delicious in savory recipes, too.

Sprinkle huckleberries over salads and vegetables, put them in salad dressings and marinades and use them in unusual beverages.

Huckleberry Cobbler
1 box butter recipe yellow cake mix
3⁄4 cup butter
1 cup finely ground pecans (optional)
1 cup quick-cooking oatmeal
1 Tbsp. cinnamon
1 1/2  cups fresh or frozen huckleberries
Preheat oven to 350°. Mix first five ingredients until crumbly. Put half the mixture in the bottom of a 13 x 9-inch baking pan (sprayed with cooking oil) and pat down. Distribute huckleberries over bottom layer. Sprinkle remaining crumb mixture over the top and pat lightly. Bake 30 minutes or until lightly browned. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream.
 
Huckleberry Relish
2 Tbsp. of very thinly sliced spring onion bulb
2 tsp. red wine vinegar
1 cup huckleberries (or blueberries)
1 cup flat leaf parsley
3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Combine onion and vinegar in large bowl. Let stand for 10 minutes. Add huckleberries, parsley and oil. Crush some of the berries to make juice. Salt and pepper to taste. Let stand 30 minutes before serving over chicken, fish or pork.

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