Sunday, October 16, 2011

Evergreen Huckleberries

The plump blue variety of Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum)
Today Katrina, Stacy, Becky, Fiona, her two boys, and I went up to “blueberry flats” near Jordan River to pick Evergreen Huckleberries (Vaccinium ovatum).  Two weeks ago, when I last picked Evergreen Huckleberries, I noticed that some of the bushes on the NW side of the clear-cut, just before going down the hill towards Jordan River, looked heavily laden, so we started picking there.  The fruit was in the peak of ripeness with some of the bushes fully ripe, and some that will probably be perfect in another week.  Katrina and I picked about 5 gallons in 2.5 hours.  At this particular spot there was a good mix of both the blue and the black varieties in about a 1:3 ratio favouring the black.  The blue variety has larger berries, and when I measured 10 at home, found them to be on average 9 mm in diameter compared to the black variety which had an average diameter of 6 mm.  I also found the blue berries to be less acidic, and more firm.  As the day progressed and the sun’s heat warmed the berries, I started targeting the blue variety because the black variety seemed to be getting soft and squishy from the heat whereas the blue berries remained firm.  I always marvel at the diversity of Evergreen Huckleberries and would wager that they are among the more genetically diverse fruit around.  Besides having fruit of two colors, I notice that some bushes have berries that all ripen at the same time, others that ripen first on the tips; some bushes have berries that are all clustered together, others that are spread out along the branches; some bushes that have berries mixed with leaves, and other that have only stalks of berries.  A plant breeder would do well to try and select for bushes with not only large firm fruit, but also berries that were densely clumped on stalks without leaves.  However, I also suspect that these bushes may be prone to disease, and perhaps it is precisely the genetic diversity of the stand we picked from that kept them so healthy.

Sunlight opening disturbance also helps these bushes fruit well.  We primarily picked along the roadside and in a clear-cut that must be about 5 years old.  The bushes in the clear-cut were 2-4 feet tall.  I felt that the berries produced best in areas with a little more shade than the clear-cut, but berry production definitely declines with a closed canopy.  The berry bushes also get strange mistletoe-like growth called Witches Broom Rust (Pucciniastrum goeppertianum) on them when they get to be more than about 5 feet tall.  You can read more about this disease here. This bush, though it grows in areas of high rainfall, probably fruits best in a patchwork mosaic fire regime.  I wonder how it responds to pruning.

The black variety
There are many more questions I would like to answer about Evergreen Huckleberries.  Fruit production is boom or bust, but why?  Does it flower in a time when pollination success is not very reliable each year, or maybe rain knocks the flowers off?  Are dry summers costly to berry production?  Does berry size change with bush age?
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