Monday, November 12, 2012

Huckleberries- evergreen and everlasting

Many of our fall fruits have a persistent spirit, defying freezing temperatures and damp weather until they are gobbled up or knocked off the bush. Champion among them is our near immortal Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) boasting a 4 month harvest season. I have eaten my first Evergreen Huckleberry as early as the first week of September and my last as late as the fourth week of December. However, the best picking is typically between mid-October and mid-November. I attribute the longevity of Evergreen Huckleberries to their protective waxy bloom and high concentration of antioxidants. Bloom—technically called epicuticular waxis produced by the stomata (plant pores) on the skin of the fruit to help protect the berry from cell-damaging ultraviolet radiation, drying out, and most significantly, mold. Bloom works in the same way that car wax protects the paint and metal from sunlight and rust. The flesh of the fruit also contains a high concentration of anthocyanin, Vitamin C, and other anti-oxidants that guards against cell decay in the fruit (and in our cells when we eat the fruit).

An absolutely loaded Evergreen Huckleberry branch!

The blue variety of Evergreen Huckleberry
Evergreen Huckleberries grow along almost the entire coastal zone from California to British Columbia. Oddly, wild specimens seem to be absent from Whatcom County. Since returning to Bellingham from Vancouver Island, I have kept a sharp eye out for patches close to home, but the nearest I have seen them was on Bainbridge Island. The situation was getting dire as the weather cooled and my craving for this cold weather fruit intensified. Finally, our luck broke; Katrina spotted a large patch not far from our house. Dozens of shrubs had been planted as part of a large institutional landscaping project and thanks to the built-in irrigation system, the bushes were fruiting prolifically.

Size variation (in cm) of ripe Evergreen Huckleberries
Black (left) and blue (right) varieties of Evergreen Huckleberries
Since Katrina’s discovery, I have harvested Evergreen Huckleberries on two occasions and both times averaged about 1 gallon per hour. Berry size ranged considerably from about 0.25 inches all the way up to 0.38 inches. Both blue and black varieties were present, and as I have noticed in the past, the blue variety tended to produce larger berries. I eat about ¼ cup of Evergreen Huckleberries a day in smoothies. At that rate, I’ll need a little over 5.5 gallons of fruit for the year. With 2.5 gallons safely in the freezer, I should have an easy time collecting the balance before the season ends.

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  1. I'm nursing a little evergreen huckleberry that I transplanted whilst building some trails a few years ago. It barely hung on the first year and now is going strong, but still small. How long do you think it'll be till it produces? It's pretty small, one main stalk that branches once and then another healthy bit coming up from the base.

  2. I have seen Evergreen Huckleberry bushes that are only 16 inches tall produce berries. I would guess that 3-4 year old stems start producing flowers and fruit. While the bushes like well drained soils, I think the berries benefit from a watering now and then during dry spells.

  3. Last year I discovered an extensive grove of evergreen huckleberries here on southern Vancouver Island. The branches were bending down with the weight of the huge berries. I returned to the same area this year, and there isn't a single berry, on any plant. It's unlikely that every last berry would have been eaten, so I'm guessing something happened to the flowers, or perhaps it was our long hot drought of a summer. Are you seeing the same thing across the water?

  4. In my experience, the productivity of Evergreen Huckleberries does indeed vary considerably from year to year. I used to pick out by Jordan River and if my notes are correct, 2011 was excellent, 2010 was good, 2008 was poor, and 2007 was decent. I didn't harvest any in 2009.

    I heard it was a good year for Evergreen Huckleberries out at Tofino this year.

    This year the fruit that I picked here in Bellingham was irrigated, which I believe is a major contributing factor for its success. I also agree with you that cool weather may sometimes prevent pollination, and hard rains may sometimes knock the flowers off the plants.