Delicious. Filling in a pie or pasty, as a gooey syrup or tasty jam or jelly, blueberries and huckleberries provide small edible fruits worthy of many culinary delights. There are far more species and varieties of blueberries than huckleberries, and confusion reigns since some blueberries are commonly called huckleberries. Regardless of their botanical identity, their culture is similar. Both are suited for U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 3 though 10, varying by species.
The blueberry (Vaccinium spp.) and huckleberry (Gaylussacia spp.) species familiar to Americans are native to North America, growing in moist acidic soils in forests and scrublands. The blueberries most often grown in the United States are native to either the eastern woodlands or the montane forests of extreme western North America from California to Alaska. Other Vaccinium species grow naturally in Asia and Europe. Huckleberries include 40 species of shrubs from both North and South America, but the few frequently grown for fruit in the United States are native to either eastern North America's woodlands or the western coastal ranges from California to southern Alaska.
Blueberries generally fall into one of five types, based on their genetic lineage, or species. Highbush (Vaccinium corymbosum), rabbiteye (Vaccinium ashei), lowbush (Vaccinium angustifolium var. laevifolium) and creeping (Vaccinium crassifolium) comprise the pure species of blueberries. A genetic cross between the highbush and species native to the American south yields a blueberry called "southern highbush."
Botanical huckleberries belong to the genus Gaylussacia, with the black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata) a common garden selection. Western Americans commonly call two species of Vaccinium "huckleberries": evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) and red huckleberry/red whortleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium).
Both plant types may be evergreen or deciduous, based on the climate, and grow with oval green leaves that may or may not be glossy. In late spring, small urn-shaped flowers dangle down from branches and are pollinated by bees. The flower color varies by species, but blueberry blossoms are often white to light green or pale pink, while true huckleberry plants bear dull red blooms. Both fruit plants' fruits become small, rounded and juicy, colored red or pink and deepening to shades of blue, black or red. Humans compete with birds and sweet-tooth mammals in consuming the ripe fruits.
Insight into Identification
The Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois, confirms there is much ambiguity regarding what is a blueberry and what is a huckleberry in the United States. Fruit color, shape, flavor or size varies among both blueberries and huckleberries. When tasting and eating the fruits, note the flesh consistency and "seediness." Blueberries are full of many tiny, soft seeds, whereas a huckleberry contains only about ten seeds that are noticeably hard and pebble-like when eaten.
Grow both blueberries and huckleberries in a moist, well-draining soil that is highly acidic in pH (4.0 to 6.0) and rich in coarse and fine bits of peat. Various species grow well in sand, loam or clay soil as long as it is acidic, evenly moist and allows drainage, with lots of organic matter. Full sun to partially shaded garden exposures work well, and many plants grow perfectly in open woodland settings. Prune deciduous plants in very late winter to reduce branch lengths as needed, while evergreen species must only be tip pruned right after flowering, to reduce new growth but retain developing fruits, according to "A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants."