Blueberries and Huckleberries
Nature Bulletin No, 311-A September 7, 1968
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
BLUEBERRIES AND HUCKLEBERRIES
In 1831 in northwestern Wisconsin, the traveler and historian, Henry
Schoolcraft, wrote: "Both banks of the river are literally covered with
ripe whortleberry -- it is large and delicious. The Indians feast on it.
Thousands and thousands of bushels of this fruit could be gathered with
little labor. It is seen in the dried state at every lodge. All careful Indian
housewives dry it . ., . Pieces of duck were thrown in a large kettle of
boiling water, which was thickened with whortleberries for the family
supper". Indians and explorers sometimes included these berries in their
preparation of pemmican.
Whortleberry from the Anglo-Saxon and Bilberry from the Danish are
European names for Blueberries, Fifteen or 20 species of them are
found in North America. Most kinds bear fruit in clusters. There are
also about 40 species of Huckleberries, all native to North America, but
in some parts of the United States the name "huckleberry" is improperly
used for both blueberries and true huckleberries. Other people
mistakenly believe that blueberries always have blue or bluish fruit, and
that all huckleberries are black or purplish black. However, there are
dark-colored blueberries, and huckleberries that are distinctly blue, but
there is a sure way to tell one from the other: blueberries have a large
number of tiny soft seeds, whereas the huckleberries have 10 rather
large, bony seeds.
The Black Huckleberry is the most widespread of the many kinds and
the only one found in the Chicago region. It is a low-growing shrub,
from one to three feet tall. The small stiff oval leaves are very resinous
and feel sticky when pinched. Its fruit is spicy and sweet but rather
The Highbush, the Lowbush and the Canada Blueberries are also found
in a few places near Chicago. These reach their greatest abundance and
importance in the other states and the Canadian provinces around the
Great Lakes, and in New England. Although only a part of the wild
crop is harvested, over three million dollars worth per year is picked
and sold -- fresh, canned or frozen. Six wild species are marketed
commercially. All kinds require an acid soil.
The highbush blueberry grows in swamps and woodlands and may
exceed 15 feet in height. The lowbush and Canada are upland species
averaging about a foot high. In nature, the seeds of these low
blueberries are spread by birds, mammals and various other ways. They
are so variable that no two plants originating from seed are exactly
alike. A few attempts have been made to cultivate them but most
lowbush blueberry land receives little care except for systematic
burning, every third year, which prevents a crop that year but destroys
the weeds and the insect pests such as the blueberry maggot.
Within the past 50 years, since the discovery that the wild plants are
always associated with a nitrogen-gathering fungus, the highbush
blueberry has been cultivated extensively, especially in New Jersey.
Dozens of hybrids or varieties have been developed for various
qualities such as size, flavor, color, yield, date or ripening and
resistance to disease. Some of these berries are almost an inch in
diameter. But it was the wild native blueberry that inspired Robert Frost
The blue's but a mist from the breath of the wind."
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Update: June 2012