When is a Huckleberry not a Huckleberry?

The term “huckleberry” in reference to fruit is one that engenders great confusion.  As with many common names, huckleberry has  been attributed to many species in the Ericaceae family.  In the Eastern U.S., huckleberries are in the genus Gaylussacia (generally), although I have heard folks refer to certain Vaccinium as “huckleberries” as well.  In the Western U.S. the primary huckleberry species is Vaccinium membranaceum (although other species are also called huckleberries).

A good short description of V. membranaceum is given at these links:

http://www.uidaho.edu/~/media/Files/Extension/Sandpoint%20Research%20and%20Extension%20Center/Fruit/HuckleberriesandBilberries.ashx and http://berrygrape.org/information-on-huckleberry-plants/.  I include a short excerpt below from the latter link.

“Vaccinium membranaceum is found at elevations between about 2,000 and 11,500 feet, with many productive sites located between 4,000 and 6,000 feet elevation. This tetraploid is commonly found along forest roads and in clear cuts and burns about ten to fifteen years old, often growing among true firs (Abies sp.), hemlock (Tsuga sp.), and bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax Michx.). Vaccinium membranaceum grows from one to six feet tall and produces flavorful berries up to one-half inch in diameter. Color ranges from glossy or glaucous black to purple to red, with rare white berries. Vaccinium membranaceum is, by far, the most widely commercialized western huckleberry used for fruit and is harvested extensively from the wild. Vaccinium membranaceum is adapted to cool, short seasons and high elevations. When grown at low elevations, the plants often deacclimate during winter warm spells or early spring and are damaged by subsequent freezes. The early-blooming plants are also susceptible to late spring frosts. Vaccinium membranaceum is rhizomatous, has a sparse root system, and mature plants seldom survive transplanting.”

These species is found in many states, as shown in the map below (states in green):

Distribution Map

Below is an image typical of the species:

http://calphotos.berkeley.edu/cgi/img_query?enlarge=0000+0000+0210+0671

Vaccinium membranaceum

In Mississippi we have species that folks call “huckleberries” and although perhaps technically the term is not incorrect (as common names can take on a life of their own and be attributed to almost anything), they most often fall into the category of blueberries (i.e. Vaccinium elliotti or V. darrowii).  However, Gaylussacia dumosa is a huckleberry species native to our region and more work could be done on this species.  Some recent work is here: http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/abs/10.1139/b11-098#.UjiTo8ash8E.

So, while I was out in Wyoming recently licking my huckleberry ice cream cone, I wondered, “When is a huckleberry not a huckleberry?”  The answer is obviously not an easy one.  Folks will call Vaccinium huckleberries and Gaylussacia huckleberries.  Perhaps there is no wrong answer — and no right one.  A huckleberry is a huckleberry is a huckleberry.  Except when it is a blueberry.

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