Hounding the world for huckleberries

Published 7:40 pm Friday, July 19, 2019

By Terry Rector

Last week I picked a last pie-ful from the blueberry bushes and headed off to where kinfolk huckleberries are the norm in northwest Montana. I even ate huckleberry ice cream and informed the Montanans about Mississippi State University creating muscadine ice cream. I gathered they were neither curious nor impressed, muscadines being unknown there.

The name “huckleberry” came about as an early American mispronunciation of “hurtleberry,” which was a popular blueberry relative back in the homeland of England. Just like our southern native huckleberry plants, the ones in the Rockies grow only in the wild.

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I can vouch for a few wild huckleberry bushes on my little homestead. The fruits are small, black and tart. All huckleberry species have resisted domestication, but the good news in the Northwest is there are plenty to be had without planting or pruning. National Forests as well as private land host enough huckleberries for both categories of bigtime huckleberry fans: mankind and bears.

Huckleberries are a very popular food where they are found, used mainly in pastries, jelly and candy. The berries don’t keep well after harvest, so they are used quickly or frozen. Huckleberry products are commonplace in grocery stores, restaurants and gift shops.  At an all-huckleberry gift shop right outside Glacier National Park, I saw everything from huckleberry key chains to huckleberry barbeque sauce. 

Different from huckleberries, blueberries were long ago brought in from the wild and improved varieties have been created by horticulturists. There are commercial blueberry farms from the Gulf states up to and including eastern Canada. Here in the South, the species grown is called “rabbiteye blueberry” while the northern plants are known as “highbush blueberries.”

For years I assumed “highbush” meant those plants were larger than our rabbiteye ones. Nope, the opposite is true: rabbiteyes are larger plants. There is another type of northern blueberry known as “lowbush” and, it being local nomenclature, highbushes are larger than lowbushes. Now it’s clear. 

Rabbiteye blueberries bloom earlier than highbushes, yet the highbush types produce fruit earlier. I reckon that’s because the plants and their ancestors adjusted to geographical weather differences. We do occasionally have fruit loss when early blooming and a late freeze clash. This year’s mid-March freeze after a lot of stuff was in bloom was a blueberry threat, but I couldn’t swear by a reduced crop.

Another blueberry trait is plants make fruit on the previous year’s growth. So for the small amount of optional blueberry pruning, top plants if you want to keep berries down within reach and every few years cut out the old, dying stems. But don’t cut off a bunch of last year’s twigs. 

Years back I taught home fruit production for Master Gardener classes in numerous counties. I ranked fruits we can grow here from the least trouble to the most troublesome, that being a peach tree by far. For simply planting and picking I suggested blueberries if the soil is acidic enough. I threw fig trees in there for the birds.

Terry Rector is a community columnist for The Vicksburg Post.