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October 20, 2020

Huckleberries deserve a spot in your garden

Photo/Gerald Turner
Birds don’t eat huckleberries, which have poor flavor directly from the plant. But, they make great pies, jam and syrup.
By Gerald Turner
Fauquier Master Gardener

Looking for an easy to grow plant that produces plenty of fruit in a single summer season – fruit which can be turned into great pies?

Grow the garden huckleberry, solanum melanocerasum for pounds of purple black fruit.

It should be said immediately that this is not the huckleberry that grows wild in many environments in the northwestern United States. That huckleberry is a perennial bush — v.membranaceum (black), v.parvifolium (red) and v.deliciosum (blue) — growing wild in the northwest and long gathered by Indians. Also noted by Lewis and Clark in their Journal in 1806: “There is a species of huckleberry common on the piny lands of the Columbian Vally to the sea coast.”

These western berries are likely related to the English bilberry (v. myrtillus), which grows wild on northern moors and tastes very similar to the wild Maine blueberry. It is likely that Mark Twain got his Huckleberry (Finn) from this western berry though its common meaning is various — either someone of no consequence or someone appropriate for a job. Very different meanings!

Note the garden huckleberry, whose cultivation I am recommending, is a member of the solanaceae family, in addition to nightshade, numbers potatoes, tomatoes and peppers among its members. Unlike these, the garden huckleberry has not gained traction in the marketplace and seeds are not available in most of the standard catalogs. One exception is the Seed Savers Exchange, where a packet of seeds is priced at $3.25.

It may be that despite its many virtues the berry has not captured the imagination or the market because it is not particularly good when eaten directly from the plant – as contrasted to blueberries.

That said, the seeds are inexpensive, the germination rate is high and the plants are relatively disease-free. You should plant the seeds about the same time you plant peppers, straight in the ground. Seeds germinate quickly in seven to 10 days. Thin seedlings and thin again until the young plants are about a foot apart. Plants will quickly grow and branch to 3 or 4 feet or so. Staking not required.

The plants in July produce white flowers in bunches of up to 10 or so, which unsurprisingly look just like potato or pepper flowers. Flowers will set readily and produce green berries which mature into berries that look like blueberries. The berry is initially shiny purple/black but should not be picked until it turns dull and slightly soft. The berries freeze well.

As noted, unlike blueberries they are best not eaten raw. A beneficial difference from blueberries is that birds do not harvest the fruit. In summary, we have an easy-to-grow berry from productive plants, each of which will produce 100 to 150 berries. Harvest by cutting bunches of berries from the plant, separate individual berries (easy to do) and store in the freezer where they are long-lived until you are ready to bake a pie.

With the harvest comes the opportunity for a first pie. The recipe for a good huckleberry pie is the same as that for a blueberry pie. About five cups of huckleberries are required for a 9- inch pie. What was a tasteless berry raw becomes a delicious pie filler when opened and sweetened by the addition of sugar and baking. I hesitate to offer more since my expertise, if such there be, stops at the kitchen door. I’m told there are recipes for huckleberry jam and huckleberry syrup — pleasures yet to come.
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