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Plant of the Month: Red Huckleberry

July 20, 2022
Plant of the Month: Red Huckleberry

From Yaya Odell, Wild Foods and Medicines Program Coordinator

This has been a very special season on the Native Plants Trail. With this temperate summer has come lush salmonberry bushes, new salal sprigs, Junco bird nests settled beneath ferns, and so much new growth. This has also been a great season for weeds, and we are working hard to remove invasive species that take up space and resources from our native plants. Our own Elise Krohn salvaged some huckleberry bushes from an area being clear cut in Olympia, and we were able to transplant them in our forest area. This small community of huckleberries joins our other established red huckleberry plants, which have begun to fruit. Read more about red huckleberry, an incredibly important plant to local Indigenous peoples, and the strong medicine it carries.   

Red Huckleberry 

During berry season, one of our forest favorite edibles is the bright red huckleberries, which glow under the shelter of flat green leaves. Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) can be found on tall shrubs that grow from nurse logs in shady forested areas. The stems are green-colored and the branches are strongly angled. Limey-green leaves have smooth edges and fall off in wintertime. Greenish-white, bell-shaped flowers bloom in April through early June. Pink or reddish-colored fruit is round and up to half an inch in diameter. Berries are ripe in June through August. The range of red huckleberry is all throughout the coastal rainforest of the Pacific Northwest and Southeast Alaska. 

Food and Medicine

Red huckleberries are one of the healthiest cultural foods for Coast Salish Peoples. They do not raise blood sugar and are an important food for pre-diabetics and diabetics. They are high in antioxidants, which help protect the body from the damaging effects of high blood sugar including diabetic retinopathies, kidney damage, and poor tissue healing. Recent research studies suggest that huckleberries lower cholesterol, slow age-related dementia, and reduce tumor formation. They are also excellent for heart health, and can help prevent and heal varicose veins and hemorrhoids. Huckleberries contain arbutin, a plant compound that helps to fight bacteria often associated with urinary tract and bladder infections. Harvest by hand into a basket or bucket, being mindful to leave enough for the birds and other animals of the forest.  The berry juice can also be used as a preventative and a treatment. 

Leaves for Tea

Huckleberry leaves are as high in antioxidants as the berries. Harvest huckleberry leaves in spring through summer when they are fully developed and vibrant. Prune a few branches off each bush, and then hang them in a warm, dry place out of direct sunlight. When dry, strip them from the branches into a basket and store them in paper bags or glass jars. Use 1 tablespoon per cup of boiled water and steep for 10–15 minutes. Drink 2–3 cups a day. The leaves will last about a year and mix well with raspberry or strawberry leaf, rosehips, hawthorn, and hibiscus.

Huckleberry Medicine

This abbreviated story is told by Lower Elwha Klallam storyteller, Roger Fernandes:

A long time ago a man had a daughter who became very sick. She was unable to eat and was in great pain. The family tried all the remedies they knew, but nothing worked. They called for Indian doctors to come and treat her. They tried all their medicine, but nothing worked. She became sicker. The man was afraid she would die if a cure was not found.
  One night, before he went to sleep, the man prayed to the spirits to please help his daughter.  A plant came to him in a dream that night. The plant taught him a song and told him to go up into the mountains the next morning, singing the song. When he knew it was time, he should stop singing and the medicine he needed would be there.
  The man awoke and went into the mountains, singing that song. He went a long way, but finally knew he should stop singing. He looked down and there was the Huckleberry bush. The man picked the berries and took them back to the village. The girl was too weak to eat so he pressed the juice from them and had her drink the juice. She got a little better. The next day he mashed the berries and fed them to her. Again, she felt better. Finally, after several days, she was able to eat the whole berry. She was well now.
  The people asked what he had done and how she got better. He explained about the dream and the berries. The people did not believe him. They said it could not be from a simple berry. That night the man had another dream and a voice spoke to him. It said that the juice of the huckleberry is the blood of the earth and the bush is the veins. The man then knew that huckleberry is a powerful medicine. He shared the dream with the people and they believed what the dream said. And that is all.

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