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The garden is located at the intersection of Wildcat Canyon Road and South Park Drive in Tilden Regional Park near Berkeley, CA


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August 2015

Huckleberries at Huckleberry Preserve

by Bert Johnson

Vaccinium ovatum


In the early 1980s, one of the parks I maintained as a park ranger with the East Bay Regional Park District was Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve, one of the few places where the very rare Alameda or pallid manzanita (Arctostaphylos pallida) grows. Other heath family (Ericaceae) members sharing close company with the pallid manzanita there are brittleleaf manzanita (Arctostaphylos crustacea), Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii), and evergreen or coast huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum).


While trimming the shrubbery along the Huckleberry Path at this preserve during one summer day in July, I began to notice a different kind of berry on some of the huckleberry shrubs growing here. Some of the berries were pear-shaped instead of the typical rounded berry. The shrubs bearing these pear-shaped berries were in the minority here, greatly outnumbered by the dominance of round-berried shrubs. In my 1951 (second printing) copy of Howard McMinn’s 1939 An Illustrated Manual of California Shrubs, this pear-shaped berry form of huckleberry is called varietysaporosum. McMinn noted that variety saporosum occasionally occurs at places that include Sail Rock Ranch on the Mendocino coast and near Redwood Peak in Alameda County. McMinn also mentions variety saporosum as reported near Gualala on the Mendocino coast and also near Big Basin in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

A whitish “bloom” (waxy coating) on the berries, making them appear bluish rather than blackish, was also considered to be a trait of this pear-shaped berry form of the huckleberry, but I have found that this bloom will sometimes occur on the round-berried form of huckleberry as well. Black and/or bluish berries are common to both the round and pear-shaped berry forms of huckleberry. I was so taken by this pear shaped huckleberry, I later collected and grew cuttings of it from Huckleberry Preserve and planted them in the Regional Parks Botanic Garden. Those shrubs can be seen in the lower Valley-Foothill Section of the garden today. And for the purpose of comparing berries, I also planted shrubs of the round-berried form of huckleberry in plant beds nearby. Al Seneres and I collected those plants from near Loma Prieta in the Santa Cruz Mountains not too long after the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Vaccinium ovatum var. saporosum

In these times of drought, it is perhaps untimely to recommend the evergreen huckleberry for use in our gardens, as this shrub prefers summer watering and occurs in places that receive copious amounts of rain. This huckleberry is often found in the shade and company of coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), and it is also a regular inhabitant of beach pine (Pinus contorta) forest on the wet coasts of both Northern California and Oregon. However, evergreen huckleberry is actually quite drought tolerant once it is established in the garden. When planted in a suitably cool and shady place, preferably on a north or east exposure, the huckleberry performs very well with minimal summer watering. Evergreen huckleberry crown sprouts after a fire and regenerates vigorously when pruned, and it may even be treated as a topiary subject, but that is something I normally disfavor, as the practice often badly disfigures plants.

Vaccinium ovatum—typical round-berry form


In spite of these dry times, I still find the evergreen huckleberry to be a most inviting garden subject. With so many water-wise Californians now removing part and/or all of their lawns these days, maybe we can afford a small space in our gardens for a shrub or two of this huckleberry, perhaps both the round-berried form and the pear-shaped form, variety saporosum.

Evergreen huckleberry is a naturally compact shrub that bears small, glossy, dark-green leaves on reddish stems. Such foliar and stem features are so ornamental that cuttings of this huckleberry are often used in flower arrangements. In addition, the new leaves are often flame-colored in oranges and reds, contrasting nicely with mature dark-green leaves. The small, white, bell-shaped flowers are similar to those of manzanitas, followed by blackish or sometimes bluish edible huckleberries very much like our market blueberries. The huckleberries are usually ripe and ready in July and/or August.

I once found a very special huckleberry growing along a trail on Inverness Ridge above the town of Inverness in Marin County. It bore some of the largest and plumpest huckleberries I had ever seen. I can no longer find that shrub, but how I would love to get stem cuttings of that plant if I could ever find it again.

Vaccinium ovatum flowering in the Botanic Garden


That particular huckleberry shrub with the large berries was located not too distant from the type locality of the huckleberry manzanita (Arctostaphylos cushingiana var. repens, now lumped into A. glandulosa ssp. cushingiana), a unique manzanita discovered there by James Roof, who later grew and preserved it in the Regional Parks Botanic Garden. This manzanita bears leaves that are very similar to the foliage of huckleberry where both species grow together on Inverness Ridge. Huckleberry manzanita yields finely-toothed leaves very much like those of evergreen huckleberry, and the leaves of both plants are remarkably similar in their size, shape, and color. The huckleberry manzanita even has a very compact growth habit similar to the huckleberry, albeit smaller in profile.

Vaccinium ovatum
There is hardly anything more inviting than walking past and through the thickets of huckleberry growing on the Huckleberry Path, a place where the very scarce pear-shaped variety saporosum can be found. I encourage you to go there on some summer day in July or August, and then try to find variety saporosum. If you cannot find the plant there, you can find variety saporosum from the Huckleberry Preserve growing where I planted it in our very special Botanic Garden.


You’re Invited!

SATURDAY, AUGUST 29, 10:30 AM - 5:30 PM
Regional Parks Botanic Garden
S. Park Drive at Wildcat Canyon Road
Tilden Regional Park (in the Berkeley Hills)
Birthday cake
Tours and activities
Everyone’s invited!
on the Friends of the Regional Parks Botanic Garden website:
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Upcoming Classes
A click here will take you to a full description of the class as well as the class registration form
Saturday, August 15, 9:30 am–3:30 pm Drawing Plants Space Available
Saturday, August 22, 10 am–3 pm Ferns of California Space Available
Sunday, August 23, 10 am–3 pm Inviting California to Dinner: Using Native Plants in Your Everyday Diet Space Available
Thursdays, September 10 and 17, 9:30 am–12 pm Designing a Native Garden Space Available
3 Saturdays, 10 am–3 pm: September 26, October 17, November 7 Trees and Shrubs of the Bay Area Space Available
Sunday, September 27, 10 am–6 pm Botany and Ecology of the Delta Space Available
October 9 through 12 Fall in the Siskiyou Mountains of Northwestern California Space Available
Saturday, October 24, 9 am–12 pm Seed Propagation of California Native Plants Space Available
Illustration/Photo Credits
©John Rusk All photos of Vaccinium ovatum and Vaccinium ovatum var. saporosum


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