Huckleberries On the Mountain Ridge Are Lowbush Blueberries

We made an interesting discovery this year in our wooded acres on the mountain ridge. A lot of undergrowth is present near the wood’s edge. That’s not too surprising because the deer population has a lot of choice of what to eat around here in the country. We see them crossing our property as they go into or out of the crop field next door, so to speak.

We did plant some goldenseal one year that didn’t flourish and I blamed their lack of growth and eventual disappearance on the local deer population. Perhaps so.

Anyway, I was surprised that we had these little low-growing shrubs flower this year. In overall appearance, these shrubs look similar to the deerberry that we’ve seen flower many times. This year was the most spectacular display of deerberry blooming so far!

I’m told by the local farmer that they call the plant “huckleberry”. It’s like a wild low-growing blueberry. Indeed, Newcomb’s description for the Early Low Blueberry, Vaccinium angustifolium, fits it like a glove. Peterson’s Medicinal Plants Guide calls this species the Late Lowbush Blueberry with its blueberry fruit ripening in August or September. Our lowbush blueberry is probably the early variety as its fruit was already turning from light green to pink in late June before turning blue.

Pink lowbush blueberry fruits.
Pink lowbush blueberry fruits. Photo taken 26 Jun 2011.

Flowers dangle in clusters at the tips of stems. Urn-shaped with five flaring tips, blueberry blossoms are typically white with shades of pink. The flowers of huckleberries and blueberries are very similar.

Leaves of the blueberries, Vaccinium spp., are soft to the touch and no where as near as leathery as the leaves of the Box Huckleberry, Gaylussacia brachycera.

Lowbush blueberries are about a foot tall, with green stems that terminate in oval-shaped, pointy-tipped leaves. Flower clusters are borne on the green stems between leafy side branches.

Green stems support several flowers clusters in between the leafy stems.
Green stems support several flowers clusters in between the leafy stems. Photo taken 13 May 2011.
Flower cluster of lowbush blueberry showing blossoms of different ages. The petals of the early flowers have fallen away, while others are blooming or not yet opened.
Flower cluster of lowbush blueberry showing blossoms of different ages. The petals of the early flowers have fallen away, while others are blooming or not yet opened. Photo taken 13 May 2011.
Flowers of a Duke Blueberry, V. corymbosum, are quite similar to the lowbush blueberry, except that these highbush blueberry blossoms are pure white. The stems attain their woody character with age.
Flowers of a Duke Blueberry, V. corymbosum, are quite similar to the lowbush blueberry, except that these highbush blueberry blossoms are pure white. The stems attain their woody character with age. Photo taken 13 May 2011.

A week or more later, other huckleberries were seen blooming in the woods. Some of the flowers were more pink than white.

Pink cluster of lowbush blueberry flowers. Note that the flower clusters arise on the previous year's new growth, which has become woody.
Pink cluster of lowbush blueberry flowers. Note that the flower clusters arise on the previous year's new growth, which has become woody. Photo taken 23 May 2011.

Fruits are small and ripen into the familiar blue berries in early to mid July. One can just see the remnants of the flower blossom’s five tips on the bottom of the berry.

Huckleberries ripening from green to pink to blue.
Huckleberries ripening from green to pink to blue. Photo taken 2 July 2011.
Huckleberry or Lowbush Blueberry fruit gets bigger as it matures from pink to blue.
Huckleberry or Lowbush Blueberry fruit gets bigger as it matures from pink to blue. Photo taken 4 July 2011.

I tasted the lowbush blueberries, but I didn’t think they had much flavor, at least not compared to the highbush blueberries we planted a few years back. We’ll leave the small berries for the birds and chipmunks in hopes that they’ll leave us our delicious blueberries.

Caterpillars Eat Blueberry Leaves: Hairy, Yellow-Orange Stripes on Black

Checking the fruit trees out back one day at the beginning of August, I saw two groups of yellow-orange and black-striped caterpillars. There were a dozen or more caterpillars all huddled at the ends of two empty branches of a blueberry bush. They must have eaten the blueberry leaves with abandon as all the leaves were gone on the stems that the squishy critters were found. None of the other four blueberry plants had any of these caterpillars.

Funny thing is I found them by spotting their poop. Those little grenades tend to collect under caterpillar feeding areas and give away the hungry camoflaged mouths.

Caterpillar scat collecting on bark used as mulch for blueberry bushes. Photos taken 3 August 2010.
Caterpillar scat collecting on bark used as mulch for blueberry bushes. Photos taken 3 August 2010.

Once you see the scat you can more easily spot the critters who deposited it. Caterpillars that have found the right food source will stay put and continue to feed, so their scat is usually directly below where they’ve been feeding. It’s a little surprising that I didn’t see the critters first, because they were all huddled together at the end of the branches.

Group of hairy yellow-orange and black-striped caterpillars at the end of a blueberry branch.
Group of hairy yellow-orange and black-striped caterpillars at the end of a blueberry branch.

Large grouping of caterpillars huddled on one stem near other stems that they striped of leaves.

Large grouping of caterpillars huddled on one stem near other stems that they stripped of leaves.
Prolegs and pedipalps, long hairs and yellow stripes. Anyone know who I am?
Prolegs and pedipalps, long hairs and yellow stripes. Anyone know who I am?

The blueberry shrubs and other fruit trees were checked often in the following weeks, but we haven’t seen this type of caterpillar again. I wonder what type of butterfly they would have morphed into. It’s really too bad they chose to eat from that blueberry bush!

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Huckleberry Recipes Can Substitute for Blueberries

The box huckleberry is either tasteless or sweet like a blueberry depending on what you read. It’s evident that somebody has tasted the wrong berry or misidentified their berry.

Blueberries are similar to huckleberries. There are several types of each plant, so one would expect that they don’t all taste the same. It seems that the plentiful huckleberries of the Northwest might be different than the box huckleberry of Pennsylvania, especially in regards to taste.

Since the fruits are similar recipes using blueberries could be used interchangeably with huckleberries. If the huckleberries are not sweet, adjustments will have to be made.

Ok. So I probably won’t be making huckleberry pie anytime soon because the fruit won’t ripen for a month or more, but I did want to collect a few links about eating huckleberries or using them in the kitchen somehow.

Huckleberry Recipes

We look forward to the box huckleberry fruit ripening in June. If that doesn’t pan out, we could always use these recipes with the blueberries we have growing out back.

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