By Amy Grant
The name huckleberry may be in reference to any number of different berry producing plants including blueberries, bilberries and whortleberries. This leads us to a sort of confusing question, “what is a huckleberry?”
What is a Huckleberry?
Huckleberries are perennial evergreen shrubs about 2-3 feet tall when grown in full sun but may become 10 feet or more when grown in shade conditions. Leaves of the huckleberry are serrated, feel a bit leathery and are between ½ to 1 ½ inches long. New leaves are bronze to red in color and mature into a glossy green through the summer months.
The black-purple berries of the huckleberry plant are resultant of tiny, pale pink urn-shaped flowers that appear in the spring. This delicious fruit is, in turn, eaten fresh or turned into jams and other preserves. Birds of the region find the berries hard to resist as well.
Where Do Huckleberries Grow?
Now that we know what they are, it might be prudent to inquire where huckleberries grow. There are four species of huckleberry in the genus Gaylussacia, which are native to the eastern and southeastern United States, but these are not the berries to which we are referring. Western huckleberries belong to the genus Vaccinium and found among the coniferous forests of the West Coast of the U.S.
The flowers and fruit of western huckleberries appear akin to those of high bush and low bush blueberries and are, indeed, Vaccinium species as well. Western huckleberries are found in a different taxonomic section (myrtillus) than those blueberries, however, as they produce single berries in the axils of leaves on new shoots. High and low bush blueberries produce berries on year old wood with a much greater yield.
How to Grow Huckleberries
Keep in mind that the species requires moist, acidic soil anywhere from a pH range of 4.3 to 5.2 when planting your huckleberries. Also when planting huckleberries, they may be situated in either sun or shade, although you will get a better yield and larger, lusher plants in shaded areas.
Between April and May, expect the western huckleberry to flower, provided you live in USDA zones 7-9 where the specimen is recommended for plantation. It is often found in mid-alpine regions and will thrive if you have similar conditions. Propagation can be from transplanting, rhizome cuttings or seeding.
Transplanting wild bushes is difficult due to their lack of centralized root systems although this may be attempted in late fall to early winter. Grow the huckleberries in a pot for 1-2 years in a peat moss based soil before transplanting to the garden.
You may also start growing huckleberries via rhizome, not stem, cutting. Collect the rhizome cuttings in late winter or early spring, in 4” long sections buried in sand-filled nursery flats. Do not dip in rooting compound. Keep flats misted or covered with clear film to retain moisture. Once the cuttings have 1-2” long roots and shoots, transplant into 1-gallon pots with peat moss based soil.
Huckleberry Plant Care
Huckleberry plant care encourages feeding with either a 10-10-10 fertilizer, manure, slow release or granular fertilizer. Do not use weed and feed fertilizer. Granular fertilizer may be applied beginning May, June and July, while manure can be used anytime. Follow manufacturer’s directions for other fertilizers.
Do not use herbicides on western huckleberries. Use mulches and hand weeding for weed control.
Pruning is not needed on young plants as huckleberries grow slowly; prune only to remove dead or diseased limbs.