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Each year in mid to late summer, hopeful foragers travel deep into the woods for the chance of finding a hidden trove of huckleberry bushes mingled with wild blueberry. In the berry hunting world, sourcing huckleberry is akin to finding treasure.
Huckleberries are closely related to blueberries, but are less well known than their cousins and typically remain overlooked by foragers. Huckleberry bushes produce sweet, juicy berries in late summer and early fall that can be used in in the same ways as blueberries.
What Exactly is a Huckleberry?
“Huckleberry” is a name that has been used to identify any number of different berries, including blueberries and bilberries. However, this can be rather confusing because all of these berries are actually different plants within the heath family (Ericaceae).
Black huckleberries (Gaylussacia baccata) is the most prevalent variety of huckleberry to grow here in northeastern Connecticut and grows from Georgia to Maine and north into eastern Canada. When I go out to forage for wild blueberries, I inevitably find black huckleberry at the same time. In fact, the bushes of each look very similar and since they both can be used the same way, I just throw them both into the same foraging bucket without discrimination.
What’s the difference between Huckleberries and Blueberries?
Differentiating between the huckleberries and blueberries can be difficult because they share many common names, as well as botanical and geographic similarities. In the eastern and southwestern states, huckleberries are in the genus Gaylussacia, whereas wild blueberry belongs to Vaccinium. Below the skin, however, subtle differences become apparent.
The focus of this post today is to distinguish between the black huckleberry and wild blueberry that grows in the eastern part of the US. The berries help explain why different names were given for these plants despite their similarities.
The huckleberry shrub grows to be about 2 to 4 feet tall. Its small, oval leaves with smooth edges are alternately arranged on the twigs. The leaves are green with a faint yellowish cast. The hint of yellow is due to yellow resin dots which you can only see up close with a magnifying glass. The leaves turn red in fall.
In mid-May, here in Connecticut, Gaylussacia baccata produces small, pinkish-red flowers with a lantern-like shape. The flowers are about the same size as the flowers of lowbush wild blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) but smaller than those of high bush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum). These tiny flowers emerge months before the berries ripen, long before you would think about foraging for black huckleberries. But by learning how to identify them in any season, you can make a mental note of where to return in mid to late summer.
How the Fruits Compare
Blueberries and black huckleberries can be similar in appearance and usage since they’re close relatives in the family Ericaceae. However, huckleberries have certain features that separate them from their blueberry cousins. Here are a few different ways to distinguish between huckleberry vs blueberry. The variations are subtle and require a close look at the plant.
- Availability: Wild huckleberry picking is the only way to get huckleberries since they generally aren’t available in grocery stores. (Wild huckleberries are notoriously tricky to domesticate). On the other hand, you can forage blueberries from the wild or buy them in many grocery stores.
- Yield: Blueberry bushes produce fruit in clusters, unlike huckleberry bushes, which produce separate berries. This means that a blueberry bush of similar size will likely yield more fruit than a huckleberry bush.
- Look at the Inside: You can tell the difference between blueberries and huckleberries by splitting open their skins. Huckleberries are either blue or purple inside, but blueberries are pale green or white.
- The Seeds: Huckleberries are similar to blueberries in appearance. However, their fruit has ten ovaries which produce large, hard seeds.
- The Leaves: Huckleberries have a yellow, sticky resin on the undersides of their leaves that’s not found on blueberries.
Where Can You Find Huckleberry?
The huckleberry shrub thrives in infertile, acidic soils well above sea level, so it only grows in the wilderness. Attempts to domesticate the shrub have met with limited success: It takes several years for the huckleberry bush to bear fruit, and once it does, its taste is not quite as good as that of wild berries.
Because huckleberries grow wild and are not easily cultivated, foraging for them can be a fun adventure. If you’re on the hunt for blueberries, blackberries, or other edible wild plants this season, be sure to keep an eye out for the less common and delicious huckleberry.
How To Harvest Huckleberries
When picking huckleberries, wait until they are fully ripened. You can tell they are ripe by pinching the berries; if they are soft and slightly squishy, they’re ready to pick. Ripe huckleberries will have a deep color and will be sweet while unripe huckleberries will be varying shades of purple ans are quite tart.
To harvest huckleberries, pick them by hand or invest in a berry rake. A berry rake will speed up the process and won’t harm the plant or fruit.
Once collected, place your haul – berries, leaves, twigs, and all – into a large bowl and top with cool water. The plant debris will rise to the top to be easily scooped out. Rinse huckleberries in a colander, drain, and let them dry completely.
Use them right away or freeze them for later use. To prevent the berries from sticking together, place them on a cookie sheet and set in the freezer for one hour before transferring them to a container.”
The Health Benefits of Huckleberry
Huckleberries are rich in anthocyanins, which are powerful antioxidants that promote numerous health benefits.
Anthocyanins from fresh huckleberry fruit are absorbed in the body quickly, showing up in various organs (like the brain, liver, eyes, lungs, and kidneys) just one hour after consumption. Studies on huckleberry have revealed some of the berry’s beneficial effects:
- Improve vision, including night vision
- Protect cells from free radicals
- Protect DNA from damage
- Has anticancer properties
- Promotes good cardiovascular health
- Reduces inflammation
- Improves symptoms of diabetes
- Preserves brain function and boosts short-term memory
Black huckleberries are a favorite wild edible because they are easy to find and identify, and tasty enough to eat by the handful. Not to mention that foraging for black huckleberries is a great way to enjoy the outdoors, find some tasty treats, and get in touch with your inner wild child.
***As with any foods or berries found growing in the wild, be sure that you are 100% sure of the plant identification before attempting to eat. I would recommend picking up a plant identification book or field guide to help you out in the field. Here are a few of my favorites:
Disclaimer: The information provided throughout this site is for educational purposes only and is not to be regarded as a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. The information provided is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Always seek the guidance of your qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition.