Huckleberry flowers

SPECIES STORY: Black Huckleberry

Living on southern Vancouver Island, I am very familiar with the red huckleberry. Through the summer, bright red berries hang like jewels from the shrub’s delicate branches. The berries beckon to all who pass—feather or fur—and deliver a punch of sweet and sour flavour.

So I was surprised last summer when out in the Walbran Valley I came across a huckleberry bush with dark purple berries. Was it just an anomaly? Was it actually a blueberry bush?

As it turns out, it was a huckleberry shrub—a black huckleberry. Though new to me, it was not an anomaly at all. Black huckleberry is the most ubiquitous huckleberry throughout B.C. and North America.

Though less common on the coast (and absent from Haida Gwaii), black huckleberry grows widely throughout the B.C. interior and thrives in montane regions (>1300 metres elevation). In the East Kootenays, black huckleberry is especially common, and can be found in its preferred habitat anywhere above 400 metres elevation.

Weather and temperature are key factors for this plant. To successfully fruit, buds must be covered by snow in winter and experience low night-time temperatures (4-8 degrees Celsius) in spring. Rain is also necessary. The berries will dry, or even fail to form, in drought conditions. At the same time, the plants do not grow well in wet sites. It’s a fine balance!  The shrub itself can grow in total shade or full sun, but the most productive shrubs grow in transitional zones between more forested and less forested ecosystems. Partial shade offers the best conditions for berries!

Black huckleberries are a very important fruit, both for people and wildlife. Like their “superfood” blueberry cousins, black huckleberries are high in antioxidants and vitamin C.

For bears, black huckleberries provide a crucial food source through the summer. Black and grizzly bears both consume huge quantities of black huckleberries in order to fatten up for the winter. In fact, years with low berry production have been correlated with years of high bear kill; hungry bears are much more likely to wander into urban areas looking for food.

Even bears who remain far from urban areas are at risk in years of low berry production. Without consuming sufficient amounts of berries through the summer and fall, bears will lose weight and have a more challenging time surviving their winter hibernation.

While a person can’t even begin to consume huckleberries on the scale that a bear does (estimates are that a mid sized bear of 230 kg will consume around 180,000 berries a day), people enjoy them widely across B.C.

As a traditional food in many First Nations communities, the berries and practice of berry picking continue to be an important part of many peoples’ diet and culture. Delicious eaten fresh, the berries can also be cooked or dried into cakes, like a fruit leather. Other ways of preparing the berries include the Stoney tradition of cooking the berries and mixing them with dried meat for pemmican, and the Kwakwaka’wakw tradition of cooking the berries with salmon roe. The berries can also be frozen and preserved as jam.

More than a food, black huckleberry is also tied to First Nations cultures in other ways as well. Huckleberry feasts continue to be held each summer in many communities.

Featured image by Christine Majul via Flickr

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