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The common name may conjure images of a blue hound or a mischievous boy, but this berry-producing, wildlife powerhouse is an unsung hero of the Ericaceae family. While lesser known than its blueberry and cranberry cousins, black huckleberry bears spicy-sweet, edible fruits and striking foliage. In the spring, bell-shaped, reddish-pink flowers appear among bronzed foliage, attracting bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. The oval-shaped leaves turn glossy green in summer as the flowers give way to fleshy, dark purple drupes that are quickly consumed by wildlife and humans. In the fall, the low-growing shrub is afire with orange and crimson foliage, and the dense branching serves as cover for wildlife. Dappled light or a few hours of direct, daily sun is recommended for best growth and fall color.  Of the four species of huckleberries native to eastern North America, black huckleberry is the most widespread and drought tolerant once established. It prefers well-drained, acidic, coarse-textured soils, but it’s adaptable to a wide range of soil conditions, including both moist and dry. The soil should be amended as needed to increase acidity and lower the amount of nitrogen. Like many fruit producers, black huckleberry benefits from regular watering in the spring to support the production of blooms. Although it’s self-fertile, it produces more fruits when cross-pollinated by bees. The plant colonizes and forms thickets by rhizomes, which are actually horizontal stems that grow underground or at the soil’s surface. The shallow, spreading root system can help to prevent erosion on slopes.

 

Cranberries and blueberries have been heavily domesticated for commercial purposes, but huckleberries have been more resistant to cultivation. Nonetheless, they have a unique flavor and are extremely high in anthocyanins.  There are several ways of differentiating between blueberries and Gaylussacia huckleberry species. Blueberries grow in clusters on year-old branches, while huckleberries--which are technically drupes—grow on single stems of new shoots. Blueberries have many tiny, unnoticeable seeds, whereas each huckleberry has 10 large, hard seeds that make for a crunchy culinary experience. The leaves also indicate the genus; huckleberry leaves have tiny, yellow dots of resin on their undersides.

 

Native habitats include acidic forests and dry or moist, open woods; rocky hills; bogs; sandy barrens; and thickets. Use in rock gardens, naturalized areas, shrub borders, woodlands, on slopes, as an informal hedge, or as a groundcover for thin, rocky woods.

 

Plant Characteristics:

Grows 2-3’ tall and wide.

 

Prefers part sun or dappled light. Tolerates full sun. Will not flower in full shade.

 

Prefers well-drained, acidic, moist to dry, coarse-textured soils with pH between 4.3 and 5.2. Adapts to loamy and clay soils. Tolerant of drought but benefits from regular watering.

 

Urn-shaped, ½”, reddish-pink flowers appear in one-sided racemes in the axils of the leaves in late spring to mid-summer. The corolla features 5 shallow lobes that often bend backwards. The tubular, five-lobed calyx has 10 stamens. The thick-skinned fruits are about 1/3” wide.

 

Alternate, oblong leaves with smooth margins and abrupt tips are 1-3” long. Upper surface is yellowish green and slightly shiny, while the lower surface is covered with sticky, resinous dots.

 

Young stems are yellowish green to reddish brown and slightly hairy. Older stems are light gray to black.

 

Wildlife Value:

Host plant for larvae of 38 species of Lepidoptera, including Henry’s elfin butterfly, decorated owlet and huckleberry sphinx moths, and 2 specialist moths. Pollinated mainly by honey, bumble, mason, halictid, and andrenid bees, which love the nectar that arises from the bottom of the corolla. The endangered Karner blue butterfly also visits for nectar, as do other butterfly species and syrphid flies.

 

Huckleberry shrubs provide important cover for birds and small mammals in dry, open eastern woodlands. Game birds, song birds, and raptors feed on the fruits and/or use the shrub for cover.


Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:

Cherokee chewed black huckleberry leaves to treat dysentery and tender gums. A tea was used to treat Bright's disease, the common cold, dysentery, or indigestion. Iroquois smoked the leaves and drank a tea to purify the blood and to treat arthritis, colds, kidney ailments, rheumatism, tapeworm infections, and venereal diseases. The berries also held cultural and spiritual importance for the tribes.

     

    The fruits are high in iron, vitamin C, and antioxidants. They are used to strengthen the immune system and to help in collagen production. Various tribes ate the raw fruits or dried them for use in pemmican. Dried fruits were also ground into a powder and mixed with flours to make bread.

     

    The fruits can be substituted in any recipe calling for blueberries, such as muffins, cobblers, jams, syrups, or pies. Many bakers cook the fruits to improve the seedy texture before adding them to the pie crust. The fruits can also be frozen or canned. 

     

    Photos: 1,2,4 Ayotte, Gilles; 3 Chase, Ann; 7 Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren; 9 Boone, Mike http://tinyurl.com/25pccjxx;  http://tinyurl.com/2trbz3ca

    Huckleberry, Black, Gaylussacia baccata

    $15.00Price
    Excluding Sales Tax
    Ready for Pickup in Summer/Fall
    • For summer planting, water deeply 1-2 times weekly 

       

      For fall planting, water every 1-2 weeks; water more often during prolonged hot, dry spells

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