Growing Huckleberries: A Challenge for the Home Gardener

Huckleberries are a tasty, healthy treat, but they can be a real challenge to grow

If you have fond memories of traipsing into the wild to gather huckleberries, you're in good company. No one grows them commercially, unlike their cousins the blueberries; so short of finding an occasional package at a farmer's market, foraging is the only way most of us can acquire them.

However, it's possible to grow huckleberry bushes in the backyard garden, if you're careful. So in this article, I'll provide the 411 about the humble huckleberry.

Blue, or Huckle?

Many people believe the huckleberry is just a wild version of the blueberry, but that's not necessarily so. While some people call some wild blueberries by the huckleberry moniker, and in fact the berries are closely related, there are a few notable differences.

Firstly, blueberries are exclusively members of the genus Vaccinium (along with cranberries and bilberries), whereas most huckleberry species belong to the related genus Gaylusaccia. The only exception is the red huckleberry of the West Coast, a Vaccinium species.

Otherwise, huckleberries tend to be dark purple (hence the confusion with blueberries), and no more than 5-10 mm in diameter. They also have larger seeds than blueberries. They typically grow on low bushes, though there are a few "prostrate" varieties that grow right along the ground's surface.

Commercial Difficulties

Although popular for its rich, sweet flavor, the huckleberry isn't grown commercially for a simple reason: it doesn't adapt well to the growing conditions required for agribusiness success. Transplanting rarely succeeds, and even when it does, the bushes rarely produce fruit.

Scientists are working on this, but viable domestication has been 3-5 years away for years now.

Backyard Berries

Private gardeners often have better luck with huckleberry plants. Just keep in mind that transplanting the bushes from the wild rarely succeeds, even with extraordinary care; so it may be a better idea to grow yours from seed.

Huckleberry bushes thrive in acidic, moist conditions; so if your soil doesn't already have a pH in the range of 4.5-6, then you'll have to acidify it in advance with a specialty fertilizer or a soil amendment such as elemental sulfur or aluminum sulfate. Peat moss is also a good option.

Give the roots plenty of room to grow (they hate crowding), and make sure the soil is quite moist before you plant your seedlings. Water daily, and mulch the plants to help them retain moisture and control weeds. Be absolutely sure the last frost is past before you plant, too, because they can't abide too much cold.

Patience is a Virtue

Huckleberry bushes are slow-growing, so don't expect them to bear before they're about four years old. Harvest your huckleberries in the fall, once they turn dark purple -- and then start feasting!

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