Of the four hundred fifty or so species of fruiting shrubs that come under the genus Vaccinium and found throughout North America and mountainous regions of South America, about a dozen are native to parts of the Pacific Northwest, including Oregon.
Known by many common names including sparkleberry, whortleberry, huckleberry (though not “true” huckleberries), crowberry and several others, the majority of the fruiting varieties require similar care and growing conditions as their most well-known relatives, the common blueberry: acidic, well-drained soil, sun to partial shade, regular water.
Essentially pest and disease free, and not requiring much pruning other than occasional light pruning to shape, Vacciniums are a great addition to the garden. The berries are edible to both humans and birds, so they are an asset to both the wildlife and wild fruit gardens. The species we most commonly see, and that have great garden potential are: (click photos to enlarge)
Vaccinium ovatum – Evergreen Huckleberry
The stems of Vaccinium with its small, green, leathery leaves are frequently used in floral arrangements. In the woods, it can grow to twelve feet or more, but in full sun, usually stays under five feet, its foliage turning reddish purple.
New shoots are a beautiful deep red that contrasts with the dark leaves. In the spring, the branches are covered with clusters of tiny, pinkish-white bell-shaped flowers, followed by tiny blue-black fruit. The fruit is so small that it takes a good-sized portion to make jam, jelly or syrup - but it is worth the effort for their sweet, fresh flavor.
Vaccinium parvifolium – Red Huckleberry
Vaccinium parvifolium is the one most commonly found west of the Cascades; in open to dense forests, frequently growing out of conifer stumps or fallen and decaying logs. Delicate, small, light green oval leaves grow from the many tiny twigs along the branches, followed in spring by fairly inconspicuous greenish-white bell shaped flowers along the stems. The fruits are tiny, red to orange-red, sweet-tart in flavor. They stand out in strong contrast to the bright green branches and leaves. This shrub will grow anywhere from three to twelve feet in height, reaching its taller limits in shadier conditions.
Vaccinium membranaceum –
A fairly common under story plant in northwest coniferous forests. The leaves are elliptical and somewhat larger than those of the V. ovatum, spaced much further apart along the stem. Flowers are creamy to yellow-pink bells that emerge from the leaf axis, followed by larger, purplish, tasty berries. In fall, the foliage turns red to reddish-purple. This deciduous shrub grows three to six feet tall.
Some of the other deciduous, native Vaccinium species are V. ovalifolium, V. alaskense, V. deliciosum, V. oxycoccus and V. uliginosum.
Common: Huckleberry, Cranberry, Blueberry, Whortleberry
Origin: The NW Native species are found in the western portion of United States and Canada
Characteristics: Native Vaccinium species vary widely: ranging from three feet to nearly twelve feet tall; evergreen and deciduous; soft green, rounded leaves to smaller, pointed leathery dark green leaves. All have tiny pinkish white, bell-shaped flowers, producing edible berries from bright red to blue-black.
Culture: Grows in conditions from full sun to partial shade, moist to dry conditions. All require fast-draining, acidic soil.
Diseases/Pests: Relatively disease and pest free, though sometimes fall prey to root weevil.