Blue huckleberries, like these prettily ripening in the late spring evening sunshine, begin to ripen about mid-spring. Click to download a large version of these beautiful berries.
This blueberry lookalike is usually about 18 in (45 cm) to 3 ft (90 cm) tall, and rather bushy with its wide spreading branches. Blue huckleberry has leaves 1-3 in (2.5-7 cm) long with a distinctly bluish cast. The bluefish look, called glaucous, is caused by a "bloom" of whitish powder that can be rubbed off with a finger. The leaves are tardily deciduous, and nearly evergreen in warmer areas. Huckleberries differ from blueberries in having ten rather large and bony seeds instead of many smaller seeds, and by having resinous yellow glands on the underside of the leaves. You may need a 10X hand lens to see the glands which sparkle like golden diamonds when light shines on them. The flowers are a typical blueberry type: urn shaped and pinkish-greenish, about an eighth of an inch (2-4 mm) long. The glaucous blue berries of blue huckleberry are delicious if a little bit crunchy due to the bony covering on the seeds. Two varieties are recognized: Gaylussacia frondosa var. tomentosa has densely tomentose twigs, branchlets and leaf undersides. (They are clothed with soft, matted, wooly hairs.) G. f. var. frondosa has glabrous twigs and leaf undersides, lacking the wooly hairs.
Location Gaylussacia frondosa var. tomentosa occurs naturally in pine flatwoods on the southeastern Coastal Plain in Georgia, Florida and Alabama. G. frondosa var. frondosa occurs on the Piedmont in Virginia, Georgia and Alabama.
Like most members of the heath family (for example, rhododendrons and blueberries), huckleberries thrive in acidic soils. They like a loose, organic rich well drained soil, but not with a lot of fertilizer. They seem to thrive in poor soils. Light: Blue huckleberry grows naturally under the high shade of tall pine trees, and in openings under the pine canopy. In the home landscape, position huckleberries so that they get some afternoon shade. They will survive in mostly full shade, but may not fruit as prolifically. Moisture: Regular watering will ensure the best fruiting, but huckleberry can tolerate normal droughts that may occur within its natural range. Hardiness: USDA Zones 7-9. Propagation: Huckleberry can be propagated from fast growing stem cuttings taken in spring. Best results are obtained under mist. You can also divide the root mass and start new plants from root cuttings. Be sure to water daily for several weeks after replanting. Growing huckleberry from seed may prove trying. Seeds require a cold period of dormancy, and seem to have a naturally low rate of viability.
The blue huckleberry is a small shrub of irregular habit that can be coaxed into an attractive shape with selective pruning.
Few gardeners have discovered the huckleberries, and that is too bad. Blue huckleberry makes a great border shrub, staying under 3 ft (1 m) in height and producing tasty berries for children and birds. Use huckleberries along paths in the woodland garden where they provide flowers, fruit and structure in light shade.
Blue huckleberry would fit right in and look nice in a natural setting with other woodland, acid loving shrubs such as shiny blueberry (Vaccinium myrsinites), Mayberry (V. elliottii), deerberry (V. stamineum), gallberry (Ilex glabra) or any of the wild azaleas (Rhododendron austrinum, for example). The berries are very tasty, but you would need a pretty large planting to get enough for a pie!
The next time you see a huckleberry in the woods, impress your friends with your 10X hand lens and show them the golden diamonds on the leaf underside. There are a half dozen or so species of huckleberries in North America and they all have them.