How to Grow Huckleberries for a Tasty New Twist on Pies and Jams

Add these native shrubs to your yard so you can enjoy their sweet berries without having to forage in the woods for them.

Supermarkets rarely sell them, and creatures usually snap them up in the forests, but once you learn how to grow huckleberries, you can stock up on these delicious native fruits. Huckleberry milkshakes are big in the West, where the wild fruits are plentiful, but you also can grow huckleberries in your garden or landscape. Harvest them to make colorful jams, jellies, and syrups that taste as good as they look, or bake them into tasty crisps, cobblers, and pies. Here's how to find the right type of huckleberry bushes for your region, plus how to plant and care for them.

huckleberries growing on branch
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What Is a Huckleberry?

Huckleberries are shrubs in the heath family, and are closely related to blueberries and cranberries. There are two main types of huckleberry bushes. Huckleberries in the Gaylussacia group, or genus, grow wild in the forest underbrush in eastern North America and Canada. In general, they're sometimes called Eastern huckleberries. Their small, spring flowers form smooth, dark blue or purple-black berries held in clusters, like blueberries.

The other group, Western huckleberries, are in the Vaccinium genus. These shrubs grow along the Pacific Coast from central California into southeastern Alaska and have red, blue, black, or purple berries, depending on the species. About 12 different species of huckleberries exist between the two types. The fruit ranges from mildly sweet to tart.

How to Plant a Huckleberry Bush

Depending on the species, huckleberries are hardy in USDA Zones 3-7. These shrubs tend to grow between 3 and 10 feet, and don't need much care once they're established.

Growing huckleberries by division is easy. The bushes spread by underground stems, so they don't have a central root system. In late fall or early winter, dig up a root clump big enough to fill a 3 to 5-gallon bucket. Next, backfill the container with potting soil. Water thoroughly and leave the plant in the container for one to two years, so it has time to recover. When you're ready to plant it in the ground, dig a hole twice the size of the root ball, mix in lots of organic matter, and backfill the hole. Water thoroughly and apply a layer of mulch around your plant.

To plant a huckleberry bush from seeds, choose a variety recommended for your gardening zone. Follow the planting directions on the seed packet. If you collect seeds from wild bushes, soak them in water for 24 hours to soften them, then sow them indoors four to six weeks before your last frost. Cover them ¼ inch deep and keep them moist until they germinate, in about two weeks. Give the seedlings at least five hours of direct sun a day. Pot them up when they're two inches tall and move your plants into the garden after your last frost.

If you prefer, plant from four-inch cuttings taken from late winter to early spring. Bury them in flats of damp sand and cover them with clear plastic. When their roots are two inches long, move them into 1-gallon pots filled with potting soil. Plant them in the garden when they're six inches tall, spacing them three feet apart. If planting in multiple rows, leave at least eight feet between each row. Seeds and cuttings should fruit in three to five years. It can take them a decade or more to bear heavily.

Finding huckleberries as young plants from nurseries can be tricky. Your best bet is to seek out businesses or plant organizations that specialize in native plants, or to search online.

How to Care for a Huckleberry Bush

Huckleberry bushes prefer part shade with dappled light but adapt to anything from full sun to complete shade. They need sandy, acidic soil with a pH between 4.3 and 5.2. Use a DIY kit to test yours or send a sample into a soil testing lab. If needed, amend your soil based on the results of your soil test.

Huckleberries do best with regular watering. Feed them with a 10-10-10 slow release or granular fertilizer as indicated on the product label. Don't use a weed and feed product. Weed by hand to avoid harming shallow roots. Add a layer of mulch around the plants.

Pests and diseases usually leave huckleberries alone. Spider mites, aphids, and mealybugs may appear, but don't usually cause serious problems. You can knock them off your huckleberry bushes with a stream of water from your hose, pick them off by hand, or use neem oil.

How to Harvest Huckleberries

Huckleberries ripen from July to September and become firm, slightly soft, and dull-colored. If you're not sure they're ready, sample a few. If they're not sweet, leave them on the bush a little longer. Hand pick ripe berries or use a huckleberry rake that removes them without harming the leaves. For best results, place your harvest in a cooler immediately if you won't be heading inside right away.

Before harvesting wild huckleberries or taking cuttings from the plants, make sure you're not trespassing or violating any state or federal regulations. Only eat wild fruits you can positively identify.

Huckleberry skins tear easily, so handle the fruits carefully when washing and drying them. Kept in the refrigerator, they'll last about two weeks. To preserve your huckleberries, spread the cleaned fruits out on a cookie sheet lined with wax paper and place them in the freezer. Remove them when they're firm and store them back in the freezer in sealed plastic bags.

How to Eat Huckleberries

Enjoy huckleberries fresh-picked or use them as a substitute in recipes that call for blueberries. For example, you could sprinkle them over cereal or ice cream, or drop them into pancake batter. For a quick treat, crush and add them to lemonade.

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