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Geographic Distribution

Vaccinium membranaceum is a species within the group of Vaccinium commonly referred to as huckleberry. This particular species is known by the common names thinleaf huckleberry, tall huckleberry, big huckleberry, mountain huckleberry, square-twig blueberry, and (ambiguously) as “black huckleberry”. It is native to western North America, with a range extending in the northern from southern Alaska and northwestern Canada to the northern mountains of California to the south. It can be found from the mountains next to the Pacific Ocean in the west, to the Rocky Mountains in the east. Isolated populations of this species have been found in Arizona, North Dakota, Minnesota, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and Ontario, Canada[1] .

Ecology & Physiology

Vaccinium membranaceum grows at higher elevations in subalpine and alpine environments. It occurs in both pine and spruce dominated forests and in open meadow ecosystems. In forests V. membranaceumoften dominates the forest understory during early to mid stages of succession.[2] Vaccinium membranceum is fire adapted. The leaves and stems of the huckleberry are resistant to low-intensity fires, and if burned away they will resprout vigorously from rhizomes buried under the soil.[2]

Vaccinium membranaceum is an erect shrub growing up to 1.5 meters in maximum height. The new twigs are yellow-green and somewhat angled. The deciduous leaves are alternately arranged. The very thin to membranous, oval leaf blades are up to 5 centimeters long. The edges are serrated, with each tiny tooth tipped with a glandular hair. Solitary flowers occur in the leaf axils. Each is around 6 millimeters long, urn-shaped to cylindrical, and pale pink to waxy bronze in color. They are pollinated by bees.[2] The fruit mature fruit ranges in colour from red through bluish-purple to a dark, almost black berry about a centimeter wide. Each fruit contains an average of 47 tiny seeds.[2] The plant rarely reproduces via seed, rather, it usually spreads by cloning itself from its rhizome or shoots.[2] The seeds do germinate if dispersed by animals, however, as evidenced by populations of the plant growing on the recovering section of Mount St. Helens.[3] Other than the study by Yang et al. (2008) reports of V. membranaceum sprouting from seed are quite rare with other scientists who have studied this species reporting only 6 seedlings observed during 18 years in the field. [4]


In a good year Vaccinium membranaceumshrubs produce a lot of fruit. The amount of fruit produced by these shrubs is legendary, with stories being told of mountain sides turned purple by all of the fruit, or shrubs being weighed to the ground by large, and abundant berries [5] Both humans and wildlife enjoy feasting on this fruit in the late summer and early fall. People have been eating the fruit of this species for thousands of years. It was and continues to be widely used for food by Native Americans.[6] Alaska Natives consumed it in bread and pies as a source of vitamin C, the Coeur d’Alene people ate the fruit fresh, dried, mashed, cooked, and added it to soup or froze it for later use, and many other groups relished it and stored it frozen, dried, pressed into cakes, or canned for winter use.[7] Vaccinium membranaceum is this species that is the most commonly collected of all of the wild western huckleberries, and it has great commercial importance.[6]

The plant also provides a key food source for black and grizzly bears, which eat the leaves, stems, roots, and fruit.[2] Elk, moose, and white-tailed deer also browse the plant.[2] The thickets provide cover for many species of small animals.[2]


Some Native American groups lit carefully planned controlled burns in wild huckleberry patches to promote fruit production by eliminating competing plants and by stimulating the huckleberry to sprout and spread.[2] Native American groups throughout the Pacific Northwest still utilize this plant as an important cultural food and are active in its management.[8]

Interesting Facts

The huckleberry is the official state fruit of Idaho, with this particular species assumed to be the huckleberry in question.[9]

Written on June 13th, 2012 , Fruits Tags:

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