Thursday, September 5, 2013

Mountain Berries: Huckleberries, Bilberries, and Blueberries (oh my!)

3 hours of good picking.
This berry season has been greatly anticipated. The huckleberry, bilberry, and blueberry bushes in the mountains were packed with flowers in the late spring and early summer, and thanks to good pollination, plenty of sun, and a few timely rains, we are amidst a superb year for subalpine berries of the genus Vaccinium. On holiday Monday, Katrina and I focused our labors on Cascade Bilberry (Vaccinium deliciosum), raking in 7.5 quarts in 3 hours, but we also saw loads of Black Huckleberry (V. deliciosum), Oval-leaf Blueberry (V. ovalifolium), Alaska Blueberry (V. alaskaense), and even a few Dwarf Bilberry (V. caespitosum). This article focuses on how to distinguish these subtly different species along with notes on their flavor and ethnobotany. Lastly, I provide a key to help clarify the confusing common names for the genus.

Katrina enjoying "Bilberry Boulevard"

Abe’s Key to Mountain Vaccinium species in the North Cascades.
1a. Berries purple to black, shiny, and lacking substantial bloom; leaves finely serrated along their entire margin; shrubs more than 50 cm tall:           
Vaccinium membranaceum, Black Huckleberry, Thinleaf H., Tall H., Big H., Mt. H.
1b. Berries blue: – Go to 2
                2a. Shrubs usually more than 50 cm tall: – Go to 3
3a. Berries covered with whitish bloom, on shorter curved stalks; flowers pinkish, longer than broad, emerge before leaves; leaves lacking hairs on midrib, margins often with fine teeth and/or stalked glands on the lower half; second year twigs round:
Vaccinium ovalifolium, Oval-leaf Blueberry
3b. Berries lacking bloom (or with only faint bloom), on long straight stalks; flowers bronze to pinkish-green, wider than long, pistils exerted; leaves with sparsely hairy midrib on underside, margins usually smooth or with forward pointing serration on the lower half; first and second year twigs angular:
Vaccinium alaskaense, Alaska Blueberry (lumped by some taxonomists with V. ovalifolium)
                2b. Shrubs usually less than 50 cm tall: – Go to 4
                                4a. Plants green/pale green; leaves obovate; flowers small, longer than wide (4-7mm x 2-3); twigs puberulent:
Vaccinium caespitosum, Dwarf Bilberry, Dwarf Blueberry
                                4b. Plants glaucous; flowers wider than long (5-7mm x 4-6mm); twigs usually glabrous:
Vaccinium deliciosum, Cascade Bilberry, Cascade Blueberry

Alaska Blueberry (left) Oval-leaf Blueberry (middle) and Cascade Billberry (right)

Black Huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum)

Black Huckleberry flower variations (above and below)
Upright shrubs 0.5-1.5 m tall. First year twigs green, yellow, or red, slightly angled, becoming rounder and grayer with age; older bark fissuring. Leaves are very thin and deciduous, elliptic to lanceolate with pointed tips; 2-7 cm long and less than half as wide (often 1/3); margins are finely and evenly serrated throughout; upper surfaces green and glabrous; lower surfaces paler with prominent midribs. Flowers are greenish white, creamy white, pinkish white, or bronzy pink; about 5-6 mm long and variously longer than wide or wider than long; borne on pedicels that are usually longer than the flower (6-10 mm); they bloom from May to July after the leaves have fully emerged.

From large to small, this is a delicious lineup of Black Huckleberries
Black Huckleberries ripen to a shiny black
Berries are 7-14 mm wide and 6-11 mm tall, sometimes round but usually broader; initially green then turn red before ripening to a deep purple to reddish black; sometimes covered with an extremely light bloom, but almost always shiny when ripe; calyxes are un-lobed but form wavy skirts (up to 2 mm long) around the golden ring of stamen scars; can produce prolifically, especially a few years after a fire. The most iconic of our species and the very image of the word “huckleberry” throughout most of the plants range, except perhaps along the coast—where Black Huckleberries are found only in the mountains—Red Huckleberry (V. parvifolium) holds this distinction due perhaps to their proximity to large urban centers in the lowlands. Black Huckleberries are juicy and sweet with only a hint of tartness. They are extensively wild harvested both commercially and by Native Americans in the vicinity of Mount Adams. Since the establishment of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in 1897 (as part of the Mount Rainier Forest Reserve), fire suppression has slowly degraded Black Huckleberry habitat. Competitive tension between Yakima and settler harvesters rose over this dwindling resource, and under government to government pressure from the Yakima, the US Forest Service guaranteed exclusive access to certain areas under the “1932 Handshake Agreement” (Fisher 1997). The Yakima and many other Native Americans traditionally managed subalpine huckleberry fields with fire. Yields of up to 100 gallons per acre have been recorded (Minore et al 1979) in an unmanaged area, and proper care may produce even higher yields. Deservedly, the ethnoecology of Black Huckleberries has received some recent scholarly attention (Truster and Johnson 2008; Lepofsky et al. 2005).

Oval-leaf Blueberry (Vaccinium ovalifolium)

Precocious Oval-leaf Blueberry flowers
Oval-leaf Blueberry with ripe fruit
Upright shrubs 0.4-2 m tall. First year twigs sometimes angular and grooved, second year twigs usually round, brown, yellow, or red, older twigs with gray bark. Leaves are deciduous, oval shaped, 2-4 cm long and more than half as wide; margins are smooth with occasional teeth and/or stalked glands on the lower half; upper surfaces light green; lower surfaces glaucous with a midribs that lacks hairs. Flowers are white-pink, about 7 mm long and narrower; borne on curved pedicels that are less than the length of the flower; they begin to bloom before the leaves emerge in the spring. Berries are 6-9 mm wide, spherical, dark-blue to black and covered with a thick whitish blue bloom; calyxes are un-lobed but form wavy skirts around the ring of blue or white stamen scars; often prolifically fruiting with juicy, acidic, and mildly sweet tasting berries. They can be easily collected in abundance.

Oval-leaf Blueberry

Oval-leaf Blueberry
Margin with stalked glands
Oval-leaf Blueberries are found in montane and subalpine coniferous forests and bogs from Alaska to Oregon.

Leaf and twig comparison of Alaska Blueberry (left) and Oval-leaf Blueberry (right)

Alaska Blueberry (Vaccinium alaskaense)

Alaska Blueberry flower variations (above and below)
Note the exerted pistil and wide corolla
Upright shrubs 0.5-2m tall. First and second year twigs usually yellow to green (or rarely reddish), smooth or slightly hairy, angular; older twigs becoming gray barked. Leaves are deciduous, oval to ovate, 2.5-6 cm long and often less than half as wide; tending to arch from base to tip and be slightly upward folded along the midvein; margins entire or with few small forward pointing teeth along the lower half; upper surfaces green and lower surfaces glaucous with scattered hairs along the midribs, sparsely haired throughout the lower surfaces. Flowers white to pink about 7 mm long and wider; borne on straight pedicels that are greater than the length of the flowers; pistils exerted beyond the end of the corolla lobes; begin to bloom when the leaves are nearly full-sized in the spring. Berries are 7-11 mm wide and 8-13 mm tall, dark blue with at most a very slight coating of whitish blue bloom; calyxes are un-lobed but form tight wavy skirts around the ring of golden stamen scars; though the fruit tends to be larger than Oval-leaf Blueberry, Alaska Blueberries have gritty texture and acidic, insipid flavor.

The midvein of Alaska Blueberry is sparsely haired
Long straight pedicel of Alaska Blueberry
Alaska Blueberries grow in lowland to subalpine coniferous forests, often on rotten stumps or in soil rich in decaying organic material. Found from Alaska southward mostly west of the BC Coast Range and the Cascade Range to northwest Oregon.

A red twigged Alaska Blueberry
Alaska Blueberry may occasionally hybridizes with Oval-leaf Blueberry and Cascade Blueberry where their ranges overlap. Alaska Blueberry is lumped with Oval-leaf Blueberry by taxonomists at the Burke Museum Herbarium, and the Oregon Floral Project

Dwarf Bilberry (Vaccinium caespitosum)

Small hairy rhizomatous shrubs 3-60 cm tall capable of forming dense colonies. First year twigs are green and puberulent (finely hairy), round or weekly angled. Older twigs are yellowish green, reddish green, or reddish brown and eventually turn gray with peeling bark in old age. The stems will root if prostrate. Leaves are deciduous, usually oblanceolate but sometimes obovate or elliptic, 1-3 (5) cm long by 0.3-1.2 cm wide with gradually tapering bases and rounded to broadly acute (rarely acuminate) tips. Upper leaf surfaces are bright green and glabrous, lower leaf surfaces paler but not glaucous, glandular, and strongly reticulate (net veined), margins usually covered with cilia tipped serrations, especially near the tip. Petiole are less than 3 mm long. Flowers are white to pink, cylindric to urn shaped, 4-7 mm long and usually only half as wide with 5 small lighter colored lobes, arising from the lowest leaves of the first year shoots. Blooming from May to July. Flowers often have a slightly deflated appearance, which is accentuated in varieties with vertically striped flowers. Berries are 5-9 mm wide, often flattened, purple to black and usually covered with bluish bloom. Seeds are roughly 1 mm wide and too small to notice when eating the fine flavored fruit.

Dwarf Bilberry in flower on Calvert Island (Central BC Coast)

Dwarf Bilberry flower, Twin Sister's Range
Found in low-elevation bogs, sub-alpine openings, and alpine meadows throughout western North America, across Canada, the northwoods, and the northeast US.

The specific epithet caespitosum and the botanical term cespitose, both mean “clump or mat forming” and are derived from the Latin word caespes, which means “turf”.

Cascade Bilberry (Vaccinium deliciosum)

This spring Cascade Bilberry flowered abundantly
Small rhizomatous shrubs 5-30 cm (40) tall, forming small clumps or large colonies. Twigs are round to slightly angled, the young twigs are grayish to brownish green, glabrous to minutely hairy, and sometimes glaucous; older twigs are purplish and capable of rooting if prostrate. Leaves are deciduous, thin, ovate, obovate, oblanceolate, or elliptic, 1.5-7 cm long by 1-3.5 cm wide, with narrow bases and rounded or rarely slightly pointed tips. Upper leaf surfaces dull green and microscopically dotted, lower leaf surfaces whitish green with thin waxy film, faintly reticulate, often hairy along the mid-veins, margins minutely serrated for at least the distal 2/3. Petioles less than 1.5 mm long. Flowers (corolla) pink, globose to subglobose, 5-7 mm wide by 4-6 mm long with 5 short lobes, blooming from May to July. Berries arising singly from short curved axillary pedicles (less than 5 mm), blue green to purple when unripe but maturing to black in late August and early September with heavy bloom that gives the berries a whitish blue appearance, 9-13 mm wide, usually spherical but the larger berries are tapered near the stem and flattened at the end. Calyx unlobed in fruit forming large round skirt. Stamen scars golden. The distance between the ring of stamen scars and the calyx is proportionately larger than any of our other blueberries. Seeds are too small to notice at about 1 mm. Berries are sweet and scrumptious (as the specific epithet deliciosum implies) with a complex taste. According to the Flora of North America, researchers at the University of Idaho and Washington State University have identified 31 aromatic flavor compounds in the berries.

Cascade Bilberries in abundance

Found in subalpine forest openings and alpine meadows mostly in the Cascades and Olympics but sporadically in British Columbia, northern California and Idaho.

Although Cascade Bilberry looks very similar to Dwarf Bilberry, it hybridizes more readily with Oval-leaf Blueberry (Vander Kloet and Dickinson 1999) and/or probably Alaska Blueberry. In my experience, the hybrid has the appearance of a robust Cascade Bilberry, but produces berries that taste more like Oval-leaf Blueberry.
Monster Cascade Bilberries, the largest is 17 mm long
Cascade Bilberries were likely traditionally managed by fire in a manner similar to Black Huckleberries (Turner and Peacock 2005; Lepofsky et al. 2005).  Cascade Bilberries were found to survive or quickly recolonize after fire in the North Cascades while competing conifers were eliminated and heathers were eliminated or set back to a greater extent than the Cascade Bilberries (Douglas and Ballard 1971).

This year while harvesting I noticed that many of the berries were getting mushed in my fingers. Still early in the season, I inspected closer to figure out why the fruit was so soft and discovered that many of the berries had been perforated. Some sort of insect is the likely culprit. According to Laurence Hope (in Lepofsky et al. 2005), "pest" infestation was a common reason among the Sto:lo to burn alpine meadows.  

An insect damaged Cascade Bilberry

Many people have trouble with the common names in the Vaccinium genus. Since dichotomous keys often help distinguish seemingly minute plant features, I thought I would develop a key for discerning confusing linguistic features.

Abe’s Key to the English Folk Taxonomy of the Vaccinium genus:
1a. Berries blue
                2a. Shrubs usually less than 50 cm (20 inches) tall; berries always single in leaf axils:
2b. Shrubs usually more than 50 cm (20 inches) tall; berries variously in clusters or single*:
1b. Berries not blue
                3a. Berries red, acidic; stems prostrate; growing only in bogs and muskegs:
                3b. Berries red or black; stems upright to spreading; habitat various:
huckleberries and whortleberries

* In some usage, the term "blueberries" must meet the criteria of having fruit borne in clusters  (like the highbush blueberries of eastern North America) instead of on individual stalks (like all of our native species).

George W. Dougals and T. M. Ballard 1971. Effects of Fire on Alpine Plant Communities in the North Cascades, Washington. Ecology, 52:6.

Gilkey, Helen M. and La Rea J. Dennis 1980. Handbook of Northwestern Plants. Oregon State University Press, Corvalis OR

Fisher, Andrew H. 1997. The 1932 Handshake Agreement: Yakama Indian Treaty Rights and Forest Service Policy in the Pacific Northwest. Western Historical Quarterly, 28:2.

Hitchcock, Leo C. and Arthur Cronquist 1973. Flora of the Pacific Northwest, and Illustrated Manual. University of Washington Press, Seattle WA.

Lepofsky, Dana, Douglas Hallett, Ken Lertzman, Rolf Mathewes, Alberty (Sonny) McHalsie, and Keven Washbrook 2005. Documenting Precontact Plant Management on the Northwest Coast, an Example of Prescribed Burning in the Central and Upper Fraser Valley, British Columbia. In Keeping it Living, eds. Douglas Deur and Nancy J. Turner. University of Washington Press, Seattle WA.

Minore, Don, Alan W. Smart, and Michael E. Dubrasich 1979. Huckleberry ecology and management research in the Pacific Northwest. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-93. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Forest and Range Experiment Station. 51 p.

Pojar, Jim and Andy MacKinnon eds 1994. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Lone Pine, Vancouver BC

Truster, Scott and Leslie Main Johnson 2008. “Berry Patch” as a Kind of Place- The Ethnoecology of Black Huckleberry in Northwestern Canada. Human Ecology 36:553-568.

Turner, Nancy J. and Sandra Peacock 2005. Solving the Perennial Paradox, Ethnobotanical Evidence for Plant Resource Management on the Northwest Coast. In Keeping it Living, eds. Douglas Deur and Nancy J. Turner. University of Washington Press, Seattle WA.

Vander Kloet, S. P. and T. A. Dickinson 1999. The Taxonomy of Vaccinium Section Myrtillus (Ericaceae). Brittonia, 51:2.

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