Island Science

I’ll be Your Huckleberry

by Dr. Sarah D. Oktay
Managing Director UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station

There is a wide range of fun and fulfilling things to do on Nantucket in the summertime, from surf-casting on the south shore, lounging with a good book at the beach, walking on the moors, or shopping downtown. For many islanders, a good day on Nantucket means a day outside picking blueberries. I wrote about blueberries last year because I thought we were really having a good harvest. This year, thanks to my extremely knowledgeable and botanically savvy friends, I know even more about the different native blueberries and some of super tasty island relatives such as the huckleberry and blue dangleberry. And although we are experiencing a drought, there are still some wet places with juicy blueberries that have ripened nicely during this sunny weather. The wonderful photos  accompanying this article were taken by Kelly Omand, a Nantucket Conservation Foundation Research
Technician/Field Supervisor. From Kelly I learned about the two types of high bush blueberries we have on island, the common highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum L.) which is a lighter blue with a waxy bloom and the black highbush blueberry known as Vaccinium fuscatum Aiton with dark shiny berries without the waxy bloom. Black highbush blueberry is found across Massachusetts and can be distinquished from its close cousin by its pubescent underleaf veins and its smaller, darker and dryer fruit. During a recent walk, while dodging the occasional deer fly, we were lucky to be able to eat our way around the trails and found both highbush blueberry species and two types of huckleberries (along with blackberries, wild raspberries, the occasional low bush blueberry, and grapes that will be ripe in a month or so).

Black Huckleberry

The two species of huckleberries found on island include the blue dangleberry (Gaylussacia frondosa (L.) Torrey & A. Gray ex Torrey) which is a light blue, almost a cornflower crayon blue, huckleberry found in moist forests such as Squam Swamp and Windswept, and the black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata) which is dark and shiny and inhabits drier soils in forests and open shrublands. Both of these plants are  in the heath family, Ericaceae.  Gaylussacia is named for the French chemist, Joseph Gay-Lussac (1778-1850), known for his Law for Combining Volumes (of gases); baccata means berry-like and pulpy, from the Latin “baccat,” meaning adorned with berries or pearls (from Bogs and Acidic Peatlands of Southern New England by Marsha C. Salett). The term frondosa comes from the Latin word “frons” for “leaf”.

The term huckleberry is thought to be derived from Middle English hurtilbery in the 1660’s which came from the fifteenth century word “whortleberry”. The term “huckleberry” was for a while a slang word meaning “person of little consequence” (ca. 1835) (from the Online Etymology Dictionary accessed July 29th at And if you think upon that for a moment, you’ll recall the famous character that was named Huckleberry Finn to denote his lower standing. Readers of this column know I love word origins and this is what I found on both huckleberries in general and Huck Finn in particular:

“A 1670 description of Long Island said, “The Fruits natural to the Island, are Mulberries, Posimons, Grapes great and small, Huckelberries.” The huckleberry, named after the similar English hurtleberry, is small and dark, something like a blueberry. The resemblance is such that in some places huckleberry is used as the name for the blueberry.

Both in agriculture and in the American vocabulary, the huckleberry has been humble. In the 1800s, huckleberry meant “a small thing,” as in an 1844 account from West Virginia: “Why, this thing laying here ain’t a circumstance–hardly a huckleberry to him.” A small bet was “a huckleberry to a persimmon.” By virtue of its lowly status, however, huckleberry was chosen for the title role in one of the most renowned of American novels, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), starring a character introduced in a supporting role in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). “No, one doesn’t name his characters haphazard,” Twain told an interviewer in 1895. “Finn was the real name of the other boy, but I tacked on the ‘Huckleberry.’ You see, there was something about the name ‘Finn’ that suited, and ‘Huck Finn’ was all that was needed to somehow describe another kind of a boy than ‘Tom Sawyer,’ a boy of lower extraction or degree.” Read more: accessed July 29, 2012. And last but not least, in the movie Tombstone and in the early accounts of Doc Holliday’s original quote, “I’ll be your huckleberry” meant, “I am the man for the job” ( accessed July 29, 2012.

Okay, back to berry eating. Both of these huckleberries have larger seeds (usually about 10) than blueberries. Interestingly, all of these plants are vegetative and don’t have to use their yummy seeds to spread. The huckleberries and to a slightly lesser extent, blueberries benefit from frequent fires for regrowth. A single low-severity fire usually encourages prolific dangleberry growth and vigorous thickets of dangleberry with high stem densities occur after low-severity fires. The prescribed burn programs conducted by island conservation agencies for our moors and heathlands help perpetuate these low lying heathland plants. The dangleberry (also known as the hairy dangleberry and blue huckleberry) plant spreads via rhizome, sprouting up new stems to form colonies. The leaves are up to 6 centimeters long by 3 wide. They are hairy and glandular. The inflorescence contains 1 to 4 flowers that hang on pedicels up to 2 centimeters long (hence the dangle part of its name). The flower is bell-shaped and greenish white in color. The fruit is a juicy, sweet-tasting drupe which is usually blue but may be black or white.

For our quick Latin quiz, Vaccinium is simply Latin for blueberry, fuscatum refers to the brownish hairs and “corymbosum” is Latin for the “uppermost point.”  High bush blueberries are in the family Ericaceae, or Heath family.  For many islanders, the blueberry is one of the most special treats to be found on island. Nantucket has both high and low bush blueberries galore and they can be found bordering wetlands and even on higher ground scattered around the island. Good “blueberrying” spots are a closely guarded secret and people are divided as to whether the high or low bush blueberries are tastier.  A great way to remember where to look for them is that highbush blueberries like to “keep their feet wet” which means they’ll do well and be easy to find in areas that stay wet and boggy even in dry years like this one. Some of the best picking is very close to the blooming sweet pepper bush and it is common to also find both bayberry and arrow-wood nearby.

From the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Services’ National Plant Center ( we learn that highbush blueberry or Vaccinium corymbosum L. is the king of nicknames with the following alternate names listed: Northern highbush blueberry, southeastern highbush blueberry, Maryland highbush blueberry, black highbush blueberry (which we just learned is a different berry), American blueberry, New Jersey blueberry, rabbit-eye blueberry, swamp blueberry, tall huckleberry, mayberry, and whortleberry (the last term refers to bilberries not blueberries which proves the federal government is not into 16th century herbalist literature). Blueberries have one of the highest concentrations of iron of the temperate fruits. Ideal soil for cultivation is moist, high in organic matter, highly acidic (4.5-5.5), and well-drained (well three out of four isn’t too bad; Nantucket has all of this except for high organic matter content). The plants grow in full sun to partial shade, but those in open sites produce more flowers and have brighter fall foliage color. Right now, the dry weather has made it possible to find high bush blueberries in boggy areas that stay wet near their roots when we do get little burst of rain which help the berries to plump up.

High Bush Blueberry

Highbush blueberry is a native to North America and it is an upright, 6-12 feet tall, crown-forming shrub. The common name refers to the relatively tall stature of these plants. Twigs are yellow-green (reddish in winter) and covered with small wart-like dots. Leaves are deciduous, alternate, simple, elliptic or ovate, 1 to 3½ inches long and slightly waxy above with pubescence (hairs) at least on the veins beneath. The white or pink-tinged flowers are small and urn-shaped (I think they look bell shaped) with 5 petals, and occur 8 to 10 per cluster. For Nantucket and parts of New England, flowering occurs in late April through May and into June; fruiting occurs late June through October, about 62 days after flowering. Fruits are blue-black berries with many seeds. In the PLANTS database, many plants known as “highbush” blueberries are actually a group of interrelated species. Hybrids are often used in commercial fruit production. Although widespread in eastern North America, the highbush blueberry has been introduced outside of its natural range for commercial berry production. The most common native habitat is in moist or wet peat of moderate to high acidity – in and around marshes, swamps, lakes and flood-prone areas. V. corymbosum is the major blueberry-producing species in commerce. More than 50 cultivars have been developed, primarily for commercially valuable fruit characteristics and seasonality.

From accessed July 28, 2012, “Songbirds which feed heavily on the fruits of highbush blueberry include the scarlet tanager, eastern bluebird, scrub jay, rufous-sided towhee, gray catbird, northern mockingbird, brown thrasher, northern cardinal, and the American robin and several other thrushes.” Blueberries are a good source of vitamin C and natural sugars and contain moderate amounts of trace minerals and other vitamins.  One-half cup of berries contains 41 calories, 1.96 grams of dietary fiber, and 9.6 mg of vitamin C. Highbush blueberry fruit was eaten by Native Americans and their leaves and flowers were used for various medicinal purposes with the fruit also being used as a dye.  Highbush blueberry is an extremely important agricultural crop and is extensively cultivated in New Jersey, Michigan, North Carolina, and Washington and to a lesser extent in Georgia, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia. In 1989, there were over 100,000 acres (40,000 ha) in commercial highbush blueberry production in North America.  Berry yields in commercial fields often average 2 to 2.5 tons per acre.  Since the 1920s, more than 50 highbush cultivars have been developed.

If you can believe it, our low-bush blueberries are even sweeter and are ripe and have been ready for picking for the last couple of weeks in many “secret spots” around the island. Vaccinium angustifolium (the low-bush blueberry) is widely found around the island in wetlands and even in the moors and along many paths in our “hidden forests.”  These bushes are much lower to the ground as the name implies and they only get to be about two feet tall. This species flowers from April to June, and its berries ripen to a deep blue with white flesh.  The deep blue color in all these berries indicate they have high concentrations of anthocyanins which are powerful antioxidants that break down cell-damaging free radicals. In fact, blueberries are one of the “super foods”, providing a significant amount of protection for various forms of cancer. Anthocyanins are present in black raspberries, cranberries, grapes and many other berries in both the Vaccinium and Rubus species and scientists are researching their use as tools in the treatment of diabetes, aging and neurological diseases, inflammation, and bacterial infections. If you are lucky enough to have a home-made and hand-picked pie here on island, you don’t even need to be convinced of the healthy properties of these fruits. There is nothing sweeter or more fun than finding blueberries along the walking trails of Nantucket, so get out there and track down your own patch of these beauties. I am heading out first thing tomorrow morning!

Portions of this article appeared in a previous Yesterday’s Island article entitled ” Red, White and Blue – Pt 2: Morrow’s Honeysuckle, Arrow-wood & Blueberry” which can be found in its entirety at accessed July 28th, 2012. Other information not cited above came from

Articles by Date from 2012