Huckleberries vs. Blueberries vs. Bilberries? Oh My….
On a stroll through the forest, you and your friends see a shrub full of deep blue little berries. It’s a huckleberry bush one friend claims. Another claims it’s a bilberry bush. While you are pretty sure its a blueberry bush. How do you know what kind of bush it is? Is there even a difference between blueberries, bilberries, and huckleberries? I mean, they have a suspiciously large amount in common, some even have interchangeable common names. Read on to find out the difference between these tasty treats, if there even is one.
What’s in a name?
My first instinct is always to look at scientific names. People much smarter than me have dedicated their lives to the study and classification of living organisms, who am I to ignore their collective knowledge? The most commonly found wild blueberry is the lowbush blueberry, it’s scientific name is Vaccinium angustifolium. Like all blueberries, it falls into the family Ericaceae and the genus Vaccinium. So, scientifically, all blueberries are called vaccinium followed by its species. Okay, what about bilberries? Bilberries by definition are “any primarily Eurasian species of low-growing shrubs belonging to the genus Vaccinium” Wait… Vaccinium? That’s right, blueberries and bilberries fall into the same genus. The most common bilberry is simply called the bilberry and has the scientific name of Vaccinium myrtillus L. Looking at just the scientific classification, is there a difference between blueberries and bilberries?
So what if bilberries and blueberries are the same? You came here to learn about Montana huckleberries. Alright well, a huckleberry is a small edible berry that is a member of the Ericaceae family. However, unlike bilberries and blueberries, huckleberries can fall into two separate genera either the Gaylussacia and Vaccinium. That’s right, the genus known for its blueberries is also the genus for huckleberries. So now what?
Home is Where the Berry is?
Different plants can grow in different soils and climates, so region plays a big part in the identification process. Blueberries, whether the commonly wild lowbush blueberries (V.angustifolium) or the garden highbush blueberries (V. corymbosum), are native nearly everywhere. They stretch from Canada all the way down to Chili and they can be grown commercially or found wild. In North America, they stretch from the Atlantic Coast all the way to the Pacific Coast. While blueberries can be found in Europe they are the highbush variety and were introduced in the 1930’s. Bilberries, on the other hand, are found naturally in Europe and other places where blueberries can be found. Huckleberries also have a wide native range. The Gaylussacia genus can be found on the eastern half of North America as well as in the Andes Mountains and the mountain ranges in southeastern Brazil. Which means that any huckleberries that are found in Montana are not members of the huckleberries-only-club. Montana huckleberries fall into the sticky category of Vaccinium.
A Flower by any Other Name
If you were lucky enough to find the mysterious bush on the East Coast there would be a relatively easy way to determine the plant's genus. Gaylussacia leaves have a resin, it can be found on both side of the leaf or just the underside, but all Gaylussacia huckleberries have it. Another major distinction between Vaccinium and Gaylussacia are their flowers. The Vaccinium flower’s ovary is divided into five chambers, while the flower’s of Gaylussacia have ten chambers in their ovary. However, once the berries have grown and ripened the flowers are impossible to study.
Photos courtesy of Google images
Within the genus Vaccinium, there are separate taxonomic sections. The taxonomic section, Cyanococcus, refers to blueberries. Why? Because in order to fall into that section the berries must grow in large clusters. So huckleberries grow differently than blueberries. While some huckleberries can be seen growing in minor clusters, finding them in a cluster the size blueberries grow in will be difficult.
It’s what Inside that Counts
Photo courtesy of Udayana University
Another quick way to find out if they are blueberries instead of bilberries and huckleberries is to smash a berry in your fingers. Blueberries have a soft inside and are full of soft seeds. The flesh of a blueberry once ripe is also distinct. When you cut a fresh blueberry in half the color will range from a white to a light-green. Bilberries and huckleberries can both range from a deep blue to a vibrant reddish purple on the inside. Not only are these berries prone to stain your fingers, but huckleberries are known for the slight crunch. Huckleberries don’t have the same soft seeds that are common in blueberries. Instead, they have ten hard seeds inside that set them apart from the rest!
Ultimately, even if huckleberries were declared blueberries, Montana would still be steadfast in their huckleberry loyalty. Even if most species of huckleberry have multiple names, like the Vaccinium membranaceum is called the Mountain Huckleberry as well as the square-twig blueberry, we know the truth. Besides, just because some people call it one thing doesn’t mean that’s what it is! Montanans will always be able to recognize that tell-tale crunch of a huckleberry. And we will always be proud of our juice-stained fingers as we hunt for huckleberries the way they were meant to be, wild and free.
By: Issa Rabideaux
Photos not credited are courtesy of Issa Rabideaux