Show Me Oz – The Ozarks are blessed with an abundance of wild food including delectable black walnuts, savory hickory nuts, sticky-sweet persimmons, juicy paw paws, tart wild black cherries, tart wild plums and serviceberries, nutritious black berries, wild grapes and delicate black raspberries. If you’ve spent much time here in Oz, you are almost certainly familiar with one or all of these wild foods and have probably spent your fair share of summer and fall afternoons gathering them by the bucketful. But there is one more wild Ozark delicacy that often escapes the notice (and the baskets) of many a wild forager: the wild blueberry.
As usual, let’s start off with the basics: Wild blueberries, cultivated blueberries, and true huckleberries all belong to the Ericaceae, or Heather family. This large family of over 4,000 species of flowering shrubs, trees and herbaceous plants divided among 126 genera includes common garden plants such as huckleberry, blueberry, cranberry, rhododendron, azaleas, and of course, heaths and heathers. And because all of these plants belong to the same family, they have many similar characteristics. In the case of blueberries and huckleberries, the similarities can make field identification difficult to the layperson.
True blueberries belong to the genus Vaccinium, while true huckleberries belong to the genus Gaylussacia. Both genera contain many species, each of which has one or more common or local names, which only causes further confusion. In the south-central Missouri Ozarks, wild blueberries are widely known as Deerberry (Vaccinium stamineum). This is correct in terms of local vernacular, though common names vary widely depending on where you live. In terms of common names, whatever moniker is used to describe the plant in your neck of the woods is fine for basic identification.
Where most foragers go wrong in terms of identification is mistaking the species for a huckleberry, which it is most definitely not. For the average person interested in gathering the sweet fruits of these two genera, the differences between them are essentially meaningless. For those into botany, the primary differences are found, not surprisingly, in the leaf veins, the flower structure, and in the number and size of seeds within each fruit. When it comes to the wild blueberries in my woods, I can always tell V. stamineum from any other Vaccinium by its extra-long stamens, which protrude well beyond the petals of the pale pinkish-white downward nodding flowers.
If you’ve read any of my Wild Walk columns you already know that I am stickler for positively identifying all wild foods and herbs before one gathers and eats them (and really, you should be, too!).
And while I could go into all the drudging details of the various species of blueberries (and there are several) and how blueberries and huckleberries are botanically different, I offer this quote from Danny L. Barney, Extension Horticulture Specialist and Superintendent of the University of Idaho’s Sandpoint Research & Extension Center in his fact sheet Growing Western Huckleberries, in which he states, “The primary difference is that huckleberries produce single berries in the axils of leaves on new shoots. Highbush and lowbush blueberries develop clusters of berries on 1-year-old wood…”
In terms of edibility and ease of identification, call them what you will and gather with abandon, because the fact is that true huckleberries do not naturally occur in the Ozarks, or in Missouri, or even in nearby states. For that matter, huckleberries don’t occur naturally anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains and wild varieties cannot (or at least, have not to date) been successfully cultivated by man. So, that should make identification a lot easier.
The most common blueberries (Vacciniums) found in the Ozarks are of the lowbush variety. These woody sub-shrubs tend to grow less than 3’ tall with many branching stems. They are found most often in open woodlands and edges of woods where ample sunlight reaches the forest floor for some part of the day.
Leaves emerge in early spring, followed in May by bell-shaped pinkish-white flowers that have extra-long stamens which protrude noticeably beyond the petals. Fruits have dark blue-black skins and clear, gelatinous flesh containing many seeds. The fruits are sweet-tart – never bitter and never tasteless. The only real challenge in foraging wild Ozark blueberries is gathering the ripe fruits before the critters beat you to it!
© 2016 Jill Henderson Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.
Filled to the brim with colorful stories, wild walks, botanical musings, and a just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor A personal and inspiring tale of homesteading in the Ozark backwoods by noted author, naturalist and plant organic gardener, Jill Henderson.
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.