Huckleberry plants are native to the Northwest and their delicious and nutritious berries have been on the menu for people and wild animals alike. Their tangy taste makes them ideal for making jam and they add an unmistakable flavor to many desserts. But apart from their value as a food source packed with vitamin C and manganese, huckleberries have ornamental values in your garden.
Granted, the domesticated huckleberries that you grow in your garden will not taste as rich or as full of flavors as the varieties that grow in the wild. However, if you grow the right variety, you can have all the huckleberry jams and ice creams you want. You can even gift them to friends. So let’s see how you can grow and harvest huckleberries and your garden.
Huckleberry Plant Basics
Huckleberries ((Gaylussacia baccata) grow across the eastern and southeastern forests and plains of the United States. It’s a bush that tends to produce just one berry at the end of each shoot well hidden among a cluster of leaves. Huckleberries are also known as black huckleberry, high-bush huckleberry, dwarf huckleberry, and box huckleberry.
Huckleberry plants have a slow growth rate. They would take about 15 years to grow from seed until they become mature. Huckleberries produce fruits between 3 to 5 years from the time you plant them. While that’s a long time to wait for a bunch of berries, these perennial evergreen shrubs and subshrubs have great landscaping values. On average the huckleberry shrub will grow to about 3 feet. However, it’s not uncommon to have a shrub towering over 10 feet high.
The leaves of the huckleberry plant are oblong and dark green. The stems and new shoots can either be hairy or waxy. The mature shrub will produce flowers shaped like urns and come in different colors. Depending on the variety you grow, the flowers can be white, greenish, red, or pink. Flowers appear as singles at the end of each stem, although some varieties grow flowers in clusters.
Huckleberry Plant Varieties
While there are many species of huckleberries that grow in the wild from Oregon to Florida, most of them will not grow in your garden. The two domestic species of huckleberry are black huckleberry, and blue or cascade huckleberry.
- Black Huckleberry: Can handle cool to mild temperatures and high elevations. In the wild, it grows on mountains as high as 2,000 feet or more. It is suitable for acidic, sandy, or loamy soil more than other types. They prefer the full sun although partial shade will not impact their growth that much. On average the black huckleberry bush grows to 6 feet tall and produces berries about half an inch in diameter. Despite the name, the berries themselves come in a variety of colors ranging from purple to black and red.
- Cascade or Blue Huckleberries: These huckleberries don’t mind getting their feet wet and grow mainly around ponds and lakes. The mature bush will not grow more than 2 feet high. The berries are usually a half-inch in diameter and are blue and glossy. Blue huckleberries produce more delicious berries than black huckleberries.
How to Grow Huckleberry Plants
If you are in no hurry to taste the aromatic berries out of your very own huckleberry, then you can grow the huckleberry bush in your garden. With USDA hardiness zones between 7 and 9, the two most important factors to consider are light and soil. Here’s how to grow huckleberry in your garden in easy steps.
- Pick a spot that gets partial shade but also has enough exposure to the full sun. Experts recommend a shaded area for a bushy huckleberry plant that produces larger berries.
- Check the soil in your garden. Make sure the pH is between 4.0 and 5.5 and the soil is a little acidic.
- Choose a large container and fill it with the right type of soil. Add peat moss to the soil to adjust the acidity level as needed.
- Prepare your rhizome around the late winter or early spring. Cut it into 4-inch sections.
- Plant the rhizome in the container in the early spring, just before the last frost.
- After about one to two years, the huckleberry plant is ready for the garden. Move it to its permanent place in suitable soil.
- The fully grown huckleberry bush will start flowering in the late spring. Berries will take years to show up.
Huckleberry Plant Care
As we have seen, growing the huckleberry bush takes a lot of patience and time. It’s the kind of plant to grow and keep it in the garden for landscaping purposes. One year, it will start to produce berries. But until then, it grows in your garden mainly for show.
Depending on which huckleberry variety you grow, you have to pay attention to the soil. Black huckleberries prefer sandy or loamy soil that is well-drained. They don’t tolerate wet soil and their roots will rot quickly in clay. Cascade huckleberries on the other hand can tolerate different types of soil and don’t mind even if you grow them in clay. Both, however, need a lot of nutrition from organic materials such as rotted leaves, shredded bark, and organic compost. Slightly acidic soil is preferred although not mandatory.
While you might need to start the bush in a shaded area in a container, sunlight is important for the mature bush. Some horticulturalists recommend partial shade to grow a huckleberry plant with dense bush and large berries. However, if you live in a humid area, then the full sun is needed for the success of the bush. If you plant your huckleberry bush in a sunny spot, make sure to irrigate it more often compared to a plant growing in a shaded area.
Watering the huckleberry plant is where you need all your gardening skills. The black huckleberry doesn’t like dry soil but it doesn’t tolerate waterlogging either. A rule of thumb here is to water the soil when it gets dry. But your irrigation shouldn’t get the soil wet either. It should be enough to keep it moist. Avoid spraying the leaves and shoots with water to decrease the chances of fungal infestations.
For an abundant crop, you’ll need to grow more than one huckleberry plant in the same spot to encourage cross-pollination. Keep in mind that your bushes need to come from different rhizomes. If you grow all the plants from the same rhizome they will be identical and cross-pollination will fail. Once the flowers bloom, the bees and butterflies will do their job and get the huckleberry bushes pollinated.
You can either use granular fertilizer or slow-release organic fertilizer to encourage the huckleberry bush’s growth. If you’re using granular fertilizers, you’ll need to apply it three times a year. The first in May, then again in June, and the last time in July. Even if the bush is not mature enough to produce fruits, the fertilizer helps it develop dense foliage. As for organic fertilizers, you can apply them anytime from late spring until the end of summer. Make sure the plant gets enough nitrogen. If you notice the leaves are turning red, that’s a symptom of nitrogen deficiency.
As slow-growing bushes, huckleberries don’t require much pruning. It’s not recommended to prune the young plants since that can damage them and stunt their growth. For mature plants, you can prune them sparingly to encourage new shoots. Other than that, you don’t have to worry about them. Occasionally, you might have to remove a dead branch to improve air circulation.
Pests and Diseases
Before you plant your huckleberry plant in its permanent place in the garden, make sure to clear away all types of weed and grass. The shallow roots of the huckleberry don’t compete well with grass and this can impact its growth or even success. To prevent weeds from growing back, you can use mulch. Also, watch out for those shallow roots of the huckleberry when you’re pulling out weeds by hand.
Mummy berry and leafrollers are two common issues with the huckleberry. You can use herbicides to fight them off. As usual, you should be cautious and use chemical insecticides judiciously around other plants.
We mentioned red leaves as a sign of nitrogen deficiency. This usually happens when you rely on organic fertilizers that might be poor in nitrogen. Apply a nitrogen-rich fertilizer and water the bush to solve this problem.
How to Harvest Huckleberry Plants
One fine summer day, you wake up to find berries growing on your huckleberry bush. At first, the berries will be small and sporadic. Don’t let that discourage you. As the huckleberry matures, the crops will grow more abundant. Here again, you have to wait for the right moment to pick the berries. The huckleberries need to ripen on the bush before you harvest them. But if you wait for too long, they will shrivel and lose their flavors. Once you have your berries all harvested, wash them gently and freeze them to keep them fresh.