Vaccinium parvifolium, or red huckleberry, is a familiar sight in the understory of the coastal temperate forests of western North America. Like many locally-native Vaccinium species, its edible berries are well-adored.
This shade-tolerant shrubby species grows in much of western British Columbia, though plants generally become fewer in abundance with increasing elevation or distance from the coast. The species’ distribution spans from its northern limits in Alaska south to California. Commonly found growing on decaying organic matter, Vaccinium parvifolium typically ranges between 1-4 m (3-13 ft.) in height in established plants. The leaves are deciduous, but often persist through mild winters. The leaves are generally described as dark green in colour, but from my observations, its leaves can be an unusual bright-green (especially when compared to the dominant dark greens of ferns and other species in these coastal forests). That unusual green color and slight zigzag in the alternately leafed branches are what originally helped me identify this plant at a glance. The leaves can also become a reddish colour in the autumn.
A member of the Ericaceae, or heath family, closely-related groups (also in Vaccinium) include blueberries and cranberries. Huckleberries are supposedly very tasty and provide for a great snack in the woods. I didn’t end up trying any on this occasion because there were only a few hard-to-reach berries remaining on most shrubs. I photographed them slightly past their typical fruiting season of July to August.
Red huckleberries are valuable to humans and animals alike. They’re consumed by various birds and mammals, a common phenomenon for juicy red berries across many plant groups. The First Nations of coastal western North America make use of the berries and other parts of the plant. Generally, the berries are used for jams or dried and then processed into cakes to be consumed later in the year. The berries have sometimes been harvested and sold; a non-timber forest product providing additional benefit to many rural communities. The Nlaka’pamux people have a traditional use of the berries for a smoking mixture, making them highly-prized. A gift of red huckleberries is to be reciprocated.
Another member of the Ericaceae, Menziesia ferruginea (or Rhododendron menziesii) is sometimes known as fool’s huckleberry because the flowers can tend to look like red huckleberries. I’d say the name is fitting, given the vague resemblance.
Vaccinium parvifolium populations in interior northern California had been known to have morphological differences compared to coastal populations, including the shape and colour of the berries. Taxonomic revision or the recognition of a new Vaccinium subspecies or species was suggested in a 2012 report of these Californian populations (that now included genetic evidence alongside the morphological observations). Substantial genetic differentiation was found in the populations, revealing more genetic similarity to Vaccinium deliciosum (bilberry) than coastal populations of Vaccinium parvifolium. The paper on this topic has excellent figures to illustrate the different gene pools addressed. Emphasis was then put on the need for further research as well as potential conservation plans. This story concludes with the recognition of a new species in 2015, Vaccinium shastense, divided into two subspecies.