Most of us know the evergreen huckleberry that is commonly found in the North Coast. When we encounter them in the summertime, we eat a few of the dark purple berries, fresh off the bush, or make the berries into pies and jelly. Did you know there is also a red huckleberry? Both share the same genus name, Vaccinium.
Red huckleberry, Vaccinium parvifolium is not as common as its sister, the evergreen huckleberry. Growing mostly along streams in riparian areas or in moist forests, red huckleberry loses its leaves in winter. In late fall, the leaves start to turn a soft yellow, and sometimes even red, making a lacy show in the fall landscape. Leaves are about one inch long, and oval, not pointed like evergreen huckleberry. The leaves are also much softer, not leathery as is typical with evergreen plants. In spring, palest pink urn shaped flowers appear and by July have turned into red berries. The berries are sweet and good to eat. Sometimes both red and evergreen huckleberry can be seen growing out of the same stump, side by side. If you have a moist, shady garden, red huckleberry is beautiful and graceful year-round, having bright green naked twigs in winter and growing eight to 10 feet tall.
Evergreen huckleberry, Vaccinium ovatum, has narrow, pointed, leathery leaves, about 3/4 to two inches long. Leaves are dark green on the upper surface, light green on the lower surface, and serrated along the edges. Like red huckleberry, the flowers are very pale pink, urn-shaped, and appear in spring. Evergreen huckleberry can grow in the deep shady forest where some plants reach over 15 feet tall and lean on other trees for support. Most are usually a dense bush about six to eight feet tall and can form impenetrable thickets, especially several years after a forest has been clear-cut. Bushes growing in the open or in clearings that get some sun form the best berries. This plant is easily pruned and makes a nice ‘living fence’. The new growth on plants that are in the sun or have been pruned is a bright bronzy red, a colorful sight in late winter.
All species of Vaccinium belong to the heath family, Ericaceae. If you think about the flowers of huckleberries, you will realize they look almost the same as the flowers of salal, madrone, manzanita as well as the non-native fruits, blueberry and cranberry, helping you to know they are all related.
Submitted by Cheryl Lisin
Cheryl Lisin lives in Whitethorn and is an LCIA board member, a native plant lover and a landscape designer.
This article is part of a series about Natural Life of the Lost Coast, a project of the Lost Coast Interpretive Association. If you are interested in contributing an article to this bi-weekly column about the plants, animals and human history of the Lost Coast Region, contact Cathy Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.