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In praise of the lowly huckleberry

CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

During the third week of May, when the oak leaves are still just pink flickers in the forest canopy, and the pitch pines had not yet begun painting the landscape with their dry yellow swaths of pollen, then the lowly huckleberry spreads its emerald scarves far and wide throughout the forest floor.

Taller than the lowbush blueberries, shorter than the highbush blueberries, the huckleberry is often regarded as the poor relation in the berry world. Its fruit is smaller, and generally less tasty than that of its sweeter cousins. They don’t count for much in the berry-picking hierarchy. Most of us who have lived on the Cape in summer have, at one time or another, gone blueberry picking, but when was the last time, if ever, you went huckleberry-picking?

Still, the huckleberry seems content with its lot. It may not be as sought after as the blueberry, but it is far more extensive and adaptable in scope. The low-bush blueberry needs lots of sun and tends to grow mostly on the ever-shrinking heathlands still found on the Cape. The high-bush blueberry likes to have its feet wet, and so is generally found along the shores of ponds and other freshwater wetlands. The huckleberry, by contrast, actually thrives in dry, shady habitats. It is most abundant beneath the full-leaved canopy of the oak forest. Its relatively brief exposure to full sun may account for its relative lack of sweetness, but the huckleberry doesn’t seem to mind. Nor do the foxes, box turtles and other local wildlife which use it as a major part of their diet.

In addition, the huckleberry is fun to say: “huckleberry”– one chuckles just saying it. Moreover, it has lent its name to one of the most famous characters in American literature – Huckleberry Finn – as well as to a classic cartoon dog, “Huckleberry Hound.”.

Henry David Thoreau, ever the champion of the underdog, praised the huckleberry extensively in his Journal. In fact, in his hometown of Concord he was known as a leader of huckleberry parties, a sort of pied piper of huckleberries for the local youths. One of them – Daniel Conway – later wrote a reminiscence of one of these excursions that beautifully captures Thoreau’s gifts of imagination and empathy toward Concord’s youths.

“Then there were huckleberry parties,” he wrote. “These were under the guidance of Thoreau because he alone knew the precise locality of a variety of the berry. I recall an occasion when little Edward Emerson, carrying a basket of fine huckleberries, had a fall and spilt them all. Great was his distress, and our offers of berries could not console him for the loss of those gathered by himself. But Thoreau came, put his arm around the troubled child and explained to him that if the crop of huckleberries was to continue, it was necessary that some should be scattered. “Nature provided that the boys should now and then stumble and spill the berries. We shall have a grand lot of bushes and berries in this spot and we shall owe them to you.”

“Edward began to smile.”

A nature writer living in Wellfleet, Robert Finch has written about Cape Cod for more than forty years. He is the author of nine books of essays. A Cape Cod Notebook airs weekly on WCAI, the NPR station for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the South Coast. In both 2006 and 2013, the series won the New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.