Evergreen huckleberries (Vaccinium ovatum) and red huckleberries (Vaccinium parvifolium) produce edible berries beloved by both animals and people. In fact, some Native American tribes traveled 30 miles for the annual harvest in their regions. Not related to these huckleberries, garden huckleberry (Solanum melanocerasium All.) has a more mixed reputation. It does produce edible berries, but it also shares similar toxic qualities with its very toxic relative, common nightshade (Solanaceae nigrum L.).
Unripe garden huckleberries taste like bitter green tomatoes, according to James Stephens, a professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida. Stephens adds that the berries are relatively safe. However, most authorities, including the Long Island Seed Project, a consortium of seed breeders and farmers, the University of Minnesota Extension Service, Calflora, a nonprofit organization, and Trade Winds Fruit company agree that unripe berries are toxic and could cause serious harm.
Ripe and Cooked Berries
Once garden huckleberries ripen, they lose some of their toxic qualities, with all toxicity eliminated when they are cooked into jams or pies. The fruit is still not as sweet or flavorful as red or evergreen huckleberries and needs more sugar than the other berries. As with many crops, the fruit gains more flavor the longer you leave it to ripen on the vine.
Identifying Garden Huckleberry
Growing in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 1 through 11 and needing no care beyond simple watering, the small garden huckleberry shrub looks nothing like red or evergreen huckleberry in its growing habits and leaf shape. Garden Huckleberry grows about 2 1/2 feet tall with a sprawling habit with large, pointed, 3- to 7-inch leaves that resemble its pepper and nightshade cousins.
Botanists, farmers and horticulturists agree that black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) is more toxic than garden huckleberry, with the unripe berries more toxic than ripe ones. Black nightshade grows in USDA zones 4 through 7 and looks much like garden huckleberry, growing 1 to 2 feet tall with small berries that are green when immature and black when ripe. Black nightshade is considered an invasive species in many parts of the country.
Other Huckleberry Bushes
Evergreen and red huckleberry bushes grow taller than garden huckleberry, reaching up to 10 feet tall when growing in their preferred partially shaded habitat with organic, somewhat acidic soil. Red huckleberry has 1/2-to 1 1/2-inch long oval leaves and an attractive arching shape. It grows in USDA zones 6 through 8. Evergreen huckleberry, which thrives in USDA zones 7 through 9, has a more upright bushy habit with wider leaves with serrated edges.
- Central Coasts Wild: CCW Newsletter
- University of Florida IFAS Extension: Huckleberry, Garden — Solanum Melanocerasium All
- Long Island Seed Project: Garden Huckleberry
- University of Minnesota Extension Service: Garden Huckleberry
- Trade Winds Fruit: Garden Huckleberry
- Calflora: Solanum Scabrum Mill.
- Canadian Biodiversity Information Facility: Notes on Poisoning: Solanum Nigrum
- Michigan State University: Solanaceae = Nightshade Family
- Washington State University Clark County Extension: Red Huckleberry
- Washington State University Clark County Extension: Evergreen Huckleberry
- Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images