Gardener’s Notebook

By Joshua Burman Thayer

My saying of the moment is Vaccinium for Everyone!

The Vaccinium genus of plants includes over 450 species worldwide with 40 native to North America. Many are members of the temperate forest understory, which have evolved to set edible fruit in less than full sun. Among them are the blueberry, the cranberry, and the huckleberry. This article is in praise of the latter.

Vaccinium ovatum, aka California huckleberry, is an abundant food crop found among the Sequioa semprevirens (Coastal redwood) all the way from Big Sur and north to the Oregon border. As readers in this region know well, the redwood forest is located in foggy coastal lands, and as such, the soil stays moist and cool. This environment may be very similar to that os your backyard understory, especially if your property includes redwoods. But if you have empty space under a tree-shaded area where you would like to have some bushes with edible fruits, Vaccinium ovatum may be the plant for you.

But while we’re at it, I want to introduce the California huckleberry’s slightly lesser-known sister, Vaccinium parvifolium (red huckleberry), which I got to know when I was an undergraduate at Humboldt State University. I had the luxury of hosting both types of huckleberry in my yard, and I found that I came to prefer the red. Both sprouted from redwood stumps, possibly brought there by perching birds.

California huckleberry is compact and grows 3 to 6 feet tall, making her a perfect understory addition. The red huckleberry grows taller (up to 10 feet), so it needs to be planted in a larger empty portion of the garden. These plants evolved in acidic soils, so you can help mimic their preferences by adding acidic plant food such as coffee grounds (1 cup/square meter).

The berries of these huckleberry plants are ripe in July and August, and if you don’t eat all the berries right away, you can dry them in the sun to make fruit snacks for winter!

Reference: Anderson, Kat. Tending the Wild; Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources.  University of California Press, 2005.  http://nativeplantspnw.com/red-huckleberry-vaccinium-parvifolium/

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons: Public Domain: Gordon Leppig & Andrea J. Pickart – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Huckleberries.jpg.jpg

This Gardeners Notebook is one of Joshua Burman Thayer’s monthly columns for this newsletter, East Bay Appetizer. He also contributes longer articles for Edible East Bay’s print magazine, all archived at edibleeastbay.com. Look for Joshua’s food forest article in the Spring 2018 issue of Edible East Bay, and check out his design site: www.nativesungardens.com