The Box Huckleberry Natural Area in New Bloomfield, Pennsylvania has more than one special plant flowering in April.
The Box Huckleberry, Gaylussacia brachycera, continues to bloom with many white, bell-shaped blossoms opening up to the warmth of the day.
White blueberry-like flowers on the New Bloomfield Box Huckleberry.
The huckleberry blooms are pink in the bud stage and white as they mature.
They don’t all bloom at once. Note in the image above, taken 18 April 2010, that several blossoms have already fallen away, yet there are still many flowers blooming.
A couple weeks later, 30 April 2010, there were still a few flowering huckleberries, but most had already flowered. Little green berries could be seen at the tips on some stems.
Green huckleberries at the tip of the stem show that these blossoms flowered first, even though the plant is still flowering further up the stem. (Photo taken 30 April 2010.)
Huckleberry new growth arises from projections along older stems. (Photo taken 30 April 2010.)
New light green foliage grows vertically from many places along a single stem. (Photo taken 30 April 2010.)
Continuing down the trail I had a nice surprise when I saw a Pink Lady’s-Slipper, Cypripedium acaule. Since I was so focused on the box huckleberry plant, the lady slipper practically jumped out at me. The shape and color were so different from the evergreen ovals of the huckleberry.
An orchid known as Pink Lady’s Slipper or Moccasin Flower due to its pouch-like flower. Stay tuned for photos of pink ladys slippers.
Even though we have seen the pink lady’s slipper flowering on the mountain ridges in this area, I was delighted to see this pretty orchid here in a protected forest setting.
I remember reading about the Trailing Arbutus and that it could be found at the Box Huckleberry Natural Area of the Tuscarora State Forest in New Bloomfield, Pennsylvania.
When I took a day-trip over there on 3 April 2010, it took a while to find them. But I finally did!
Near the entrance of the Box Huckleberry Natural Area is a side road called Arbutus Lane. Very close to the spot where Arbutus Lane meets Huckleberry Road is a patch of trailing arbutus. The patch of arbutus we saw was about 2 ft by 3 ft in size under the trees at the border of the State Forest.
Trailing arbutus, Epigaea repens, sometimes called the “Mayflower”, is a member of the heath family, just as the huckleberry is. They do occur in the same habitat, shady places under trees. These perennials both have oval-shaped evergreen leaves, but arbutus leaves are 2-3 times bigger than huckleberry leaves.
Arbutus leaves that last over winter may turn brown at the ends.
Flowers are partially tucked under the old leaves and may not be visible to the casual passerby. Here, the shiny trailing Arbutus blossoms were quite noticeable in the sunlight among the old brown leaves, even though they grew so near the ground.
In the photo above there are four flower clusters, three of which are mostly hidden under the arbutus leaves.
A cluster of two or more, five-petaled, white blossoms appear like partridgeberry blooms with their elongated bell shape. The five petals flare out at the ends of the trumpet-like bell. They also smelled wonderfully sweet.
Now that I’ve seen trailing arbutus I’ll be more likely to spot it in other places, especially when the plant is not blooming.
Peterson’s Medicinal Plants Guide states that Native Americans used a leaf tea to treat kidney and stomach disorders. Arbutus was also used as a folk remedy for urinary problems. Arbutus itself might not be toxic, but a chemical formed in our bodies – as a result of drinking arbutus tea – is toxic. We can’t recommend drinking this tea, so we’ll just admire the trailing arbutus on the trail.
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.