By Kristi Dranginis
Huckleberry plants can be found hiding in plain sight. Whether you are passing a backyard garden or walking in the forest, massive old growth tree stumps are an integral part of the Pacific Northwest's modern landscape. In many places these old giants act as nursery stumps (a stump that, as it decays, creates detritus which contributes to the formation of rich Humus, providing ideal conditions for plant life to flourish) to a host of other plant life. One of the most common inhabitants of these nursery stumps is the red huckleberry(Vaccinium parvifolium).
Its bright green and thin crooked branches hang laden with pink-red berries early in the spring. These delicate translucent berries have been a source of food for generations of Northwest natives, animals and people alike. They are rich in vitamin C, available sugars and minerals like manganese. Many native tribes of the Northwest collected the berries and either ate them fresh or dried them to make into cakes for use later in the year. Red huckleberries are easy to collect, you simply shake one of the branches and make sure to have a basket or open bag ready underneath. The berries will fall easily from their stem.
As heavily used as they are, not everyone enjoys their tangy-tart flavor. It is for this reason that they are usually combined with other berries, like the blueberry (another Vaccinium of the Ericaceae family) to add sweetness.
The dried leaves and stems, collected late in the summer to early fall, are medicinally valuable resources as well. According to Thomas Elpel in his thorough book on plants, Botany in a Day, "the berries and plants alike are rich in flavonoids, which are consumed for their antioxidant effects". Further, the Red huckleberry plants are known to be, he says "mildly astringent, diuretic and sometimes act as vasoconstrictors". It is because of these properties that a tea of the leaf and stem are helpful in cases of diarrhea as well as a gargle for sore throats and inflamed gums.
Michael Moore, another leading expert on plants, states in his book, Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, that "some folks with allergies and the tendency for skin hyperactivity may find that the tea decreases their inflammatory responses".
Whatever it is that first draws you to the red huckleberry plants, I recommend spending some time sitting next to one of them on their big old nursery stumps and taking in all the beauty and bounty they have to offer. See if you can discover who else relies on the huckleberry for sustenance, being sure to return throughout all times of the year.
Learn about more wild edible plants at our Wild Edible Plants Courses.
Find out more about the natural history of the red huckleberry at Evergreen State College's ethnobotany pages.