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.
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.
A week or more later, other huckleberries were seen blooming in the woods. Some of the flowers were more pink than white.
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.
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.
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.
The morning of April 3, 2010 was a beautifully sunny one. We drove straight through Newport via the River Road where we saw some beautiful stands of Dutchman’s Breeches and they were flowering just profusely. They are really pretty with their little flower frond held high in the air. They made me stop and turn around they were that pretty. Since it was private property we didn’t take time to ask to get a picture because we were on the way somewhere.
Anyway, we continued on through Newport, PA on Route 34 south to New Bloomfield, turned left at the town square and continued on Route 274. About where the houses end at the edge of town, we turned right onto Huckleberry Road and about a half-mile down the road came to the Box Huckleberry Natural Area, land protected by the forest service.
The Box Huckleberry Natural Area is a 10-acre site in the Tuscarora State Forest.
The Box Huckleberry Natural Area of the Tuscarora State Forest has been managed by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry since 1974, and is located in Perry County, Pennsylvania. Route 34/274 are half a mile away and New Bloomfield is 1 1/2 miles away. Take the Newport/Route 34 exit of Route 322 and continue south on Route 34. When you turn onto Huckleberry Road there is a small pullout for a parking area. The creek across the road feeds into Trout Run.
Walking up the steps into the natural area you come to a trail where there is a map posted. No pamphlets available. Rules and regulations are posted by the Forest Service. To be highlighted among these rules is that you shall do no picking of flowers according to the rules on forest products.
The trail is well-worn with pine needles, pine cones, leaves or moss covering the trail in places. It’s a short trail running maybe half a mile up and over a hill. In a few spots you could see the tire imprints of a mountain bike rider that rode through the trail recently.
The nature trail has a moderate climb and a few steps in appropriate locations to help you up the trail.
The Box Huckleberry, Gaylussacia brachycera, is like a low-growing blueberry. The plants are green everywhere with their evergreen leaves shining in the sunlight.
Small oval leaves are leathery to the touch, with a shiny slick upper surface and a paler rougher surface on the underside of the leaves.
Huckleberry blossoms are just starting to come out now. The flowers are similar to blueberry blossoms because the bell-shaped white flowers hang in clusters.
Most plants have tight pink buds for flowers, not opened blossoms. Blossoms that catch an early morning sun might be opening, but not very many huckleberries are blooming just yet.
I came over here to find a trailing arbutus as I had never seen the “mayflower” before and it’s been reported to be at this location. Trailing arbutus, Epigaea repens, has rounded evergreen leaves and five pointed bell-shaped blossoms in pink or white. I combed the area in and around the pine trees trying to find trailing arbutus but with no luck.
A couple groups of striped wintergreen were close to the trail in the shaded areas, especially on the hillsides. This land is pretty much covered with white pine and hemlock which creates deep shade and the perfect type of area for the box huckleberry.
Box huckleberry has not spread to areas underneath the more open canopy of the deciduous trees on the far side of the hill. The areas with more sun reaching the ground, like the far side of the hill from the entrance, might be the natural limit of the huckleberry due to the lack of shade.
I found it interesting that the only known colony or plant in North Carolina is associated with mountain laurel, just as the PA plants are.
Besides the striped wintergreen we saw the single leaf of the dogtooth violet but no blooms, and wintergreen – some still with their red berries. Where the box huckleberry grows almost nothing else is growing as it heavily carpets the whole area. Rattlesnake-weed with its heavy, purple-veined leaf ribs were seen at the edge of the shady area near the entrance.
A major curiosity is that the entire box huckleberry colony is actually one giant plant that is estimated to be at least 1300 years old! It grows by expansion of roots at a rate of about 6 inches per year. Currently, the New Bloomfield Box Huckleberry, as it’s referred to by the forest service, is about 8 acres in size. There’s another box huckleberry plant not too far from here that is reportedly over 13,000 years old, which makes these plants some of the very oldest organisms on the planet.
Worthy of protection, don’t you think? The box huckleberry has a threatened status in Pennsylvania and is protected by virtue of being in the State Forest.
Under Title 17 Pennsylvania Code, Part 1 Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Subpart C State Forests, Chapter 21 General Provisions, under Forest Products part 21.31 Prohibitions. The following activities are prohibited…
Cutting, picking, digging, damaging or removing in whole or in part a living or dead plant, vine, shrub, tree or flower on State Forest land without written permission of the district forester or designee, except that edible wild plants or plant parts may be gathered without authorization if they are gathered for one’s own personal or family consumption. Dead and down wood for small camp fires may be gathered without prior authorization.
I would interpret that to mean that we can’t take any clippings or cuttings of the plants themselves, but we could come back and sample the fruit without getting in trouble. I wonder if huckleberries taste like blueberries…hmmm, maybe we’ll come back to this berry patch in June.