You’ve probably heard of a huckleberry. But have you ever eaten one? The small, black relatives of the blueberry grow all over the Cape and Islands, and Neil Gadway has been picking them his whole life.
"When I was little, that would have been back in the late 40s and early 50s, my grandmother and myself used to go down the street from where we lived," says Gadway. "That area was subdivided many years ago. Several areas up there that had some pretty nice huckleberry bushes."
Neil says he remembers trying to put one huckleberry in the pail for every one he ate in the woods, because getting enough for his grandmother was hard work.
"Huckleberries tend to be more of a challenge to collect than blueberries," Gadway says. "Blueberries tend to grow in clumps. But huckleberries grow as single berries, and you have to pick them one at a time. After you bring them home, you don’t have the big pile of berries."
Huckleberries are great to eat off the plant, but they don’t go as far in recipes.
"My grandmother used to bake them as huckleberry muffins, or maybe sort of a huckleberry cake," Gadway remembers. "Blueberries, you could make a blueberry pie, but that requires a lot of blueberries and you wouldn’t have much of a pie with the huckleberries that you picked. So muffins stretched it out a bit better."
I ask him to describe the flavor difference.
"I think it’s more intense," he says. "Once you’ve tasted a huckleberry, most people say they’re really good. The quality, how plump the berry is, will depend on how much rainfall we’ve had over the winter and spring. If it's been dry, the huckleberries tend to have these little seeds that are more noticeable, whereas if it’s been wet, you don’t tend to notice as much."
The two plants look a little different and so do the fruits.
"Blueberries are generally actually blue, and they can come in both a highbush form and a lower growing type of plant. Huckleberries are pretty universal in their bush: they’re maybe one-to-two feet off the ground, and the berries are smaller usually, and they’re really black in color."
Huckleberries also aren’t domesticated. Plant breeders in Idaho—where the huckleberry is the state fruit—have apparently been trying for over a century with little success. Many foragers keep their spots to themselves—but Neil says when he sees huckleberry plants, he tries to spread the word. "There are still a lot of areas in town that have huckleberries. I work out in the field at a lot different houses on the lower cape. I will see occasionally huckleberries growing out on people’s front lawns, and I ask them, if I’m there in say June or July, if they pick their huckleberries. And they kind of look at me with this quizzical face and say “huckle-what?” I ask if they mind if I pick some. They say “Sure!” I have to explain to them that they’re quite edible and quite tasty. So after I leave, maybe they’re trying them themselves because they’re growing in their front yard.
Huckleberry season starts in July, and the plants are ubiquitous near ponds and in local woods.
And here’s an interesting tidbit: the leaves of huckleberry plants were used as a folk remedy for treating diabetes. They do lower blood sugar, but they do it by impairing a normal process in the liver—not a great long-term plan. But the berries themselves have the highest antioxidant levels of any berry—so go ahead and dig in.