Saturday, March 06, 2004

Red Huckleberry

This is a very special day for me, and a very special photo accompanies it.

The Red Huckleberry

The Red Huckleberry is a very special plant, with very special berries. I love them. They are delicious. They grow all over the place in the wild, but it is a rare and special thing to find them. Personally, I think they should be on the endangered species list, but that might make them even harder for the average guy like me to find a bush for his back yard. Actually, if a black market opened up for these little plants, they might actually be EASIER to find.

You are probably asking yourself: how can all those different things be true? Rare, but they grow all over the place? Impossible to find? I don't get it...

My Quest for the Red Huckleberry, a life-long Journey

When I was sixteen, I went fishing for the first time with a friend. He was an odd sort of kid that nobody in school payed attention to, but I couldn't see anything drastically wrong with him, so I decided to befriend this guy. Well, I found out after a time that he loved fishing. First he took me to a lake and we sat there for some time and accomplished nothing. Then he took me to the Rogue River. We lived not far from it in the then little city of Medford, OR.

I like to recount my famous "first fish" story for all who would hear it. We were fishing for trout. I'd finally gotten used to casting with my rod and reel, when my friend Hank asked if I wanted to try it with his. Well, I did. And silly me, I let go too soon. The line soared up over a bush and landed God-knows-where. Well, I tugged and pulled and eventually found out where the line landed. It had actually landed in the River, about a foot or two off shore. And guess what. When we finally found it, it had a trout on the end of it sitting there waiting for me.

True story.

But what I never tell, because it isn't important to the story, was the fact that that was a huckleberry bush that I'd cast my line over the top of.

Well, now on to modern times. That first encounter with a huckleberry was 25 years ago. A lot has changed. I don't fish for trout any more, I fish for salmon (on the rare occassion that I go fishing with James.) I don't have a tiny little beard any more, I have a big one. And I don't ignore huckleberry bushes any more either.

I remember as a young person I always had a dream. "If ever in my life," I told my young self, "I have the opportunity to own a house, I will have tons of garden. I will grow every imaginable edible thing, every delicious thing I can think of... especially strawberries." As a counterweight to these youthful imaginings, I also recall that I never cared for blueberries in my whole life until recent years. In fact, I'd have to say that I never liked blueberries at all, until my friend at work, Rick, brought in a bucked of fresh blueberries one day.

Well, anyway, with home ownership I definitely tried the garden thing. I have not been successful. I have several raised garden plots and I haven't been able to grow a darn thing in them. I'd say the soil was poisoned or something, but I bought it myself and poured it into there. I use miracle grow, and water regularly all summer long and I'm lucky if I get three or four tomatoes by the end of August.

What, I have had success with, however, are berries! Loads of berries. I love berries. If I didn't have some friends named "The Berries" I'd probably put up a big sign and name my house, "The Berry Farm" or something silly like that. Anyway, I've got three large plots of strawberries (one of them wild strawberries, which are a different sort of thing altogether), and five blueberry bushes. I won't do blackberries, marionberries, or rasberries, because they take over your whole yard - and your neighbors yards. But I've been on a quest to do Red Huckleberries ever since I first discovered them.

I cannot remember when I first discovered Red Huckleberries, but I can tell you now a few good places to find them... to pick them to eat. In the Pacific Northwest, Red Huckeberries thrive in various places in the forrests and woods. There are definitely some at the beginning of the hiking trail at Wallace Falls. They also thrive at St. Edward's Park and at Seaquist State Park and down in Oregon at Umpqua Lighthouse State Park. At the later of these parks, Red Huckleberries thrive amidst Black Huckleberries, Mountain Huckleberries, Blackberries, Salmon Berries, and Thimble Berries. In fact, the entire forrest is thick with underbrush at the Umpqua Lighthouse Park, and all of the underbrush is wild berries. I've been to just about every State Park along the Oregon coast, and the Umpqua Lighthouse definitely has the most amount of berries. I'd say if you like berries, it's the place to go. It might even be THE place to go on the West Coast, USA. But, I digress...

The first three of these parks listed above mostly have blackberries, red huckeberries, and thimble berries. There might also be Logan berries, but I've not yet acquainted myself with that delicacy (it looks to similar to several varieties of berries that aren't good for you) but maybe someday I'll go there.

Anyway, back to Huckleberries... I decided several years ago that I wanted to plant some Red Huckleberries in my yard. Just one problem: after contacting virtually every nursary in the Puget Sound, I'd discovered that you cannot buy Red Huckleberries. Anywhere. Period. End of story.

Even the largest, and most diverse nursaries, with wild and native plant sections, even the ones with large variety of blue berries (the red huckleberry Vaccinium parvifoliumis a member of the blueberry (Vaccinium) family.) yes, even nursaries that carry every imaginable blueberry do not carry the Red Huckleberry. So, I was left with the option of digging one up somewhere as about the only way to get one into my backyard.

The only problem with that is: the only places you can get to them are in public parks, where it is against the law to dig up plants and take them home with you. Well, that and yet one more problem. In spite of the vast range of Huckleberries throughout the Pacific Northwest, almost the only place they grow is in the rotting stumps of fallen Cedar Trees. It's a strange phenomonon, but it is true. You rarely find Huckleberries growing without a rotten cedar tree beneath them, and you never find a Huckleberry growing without at least one rotting cedar stump close by that has a (maternal) huckleberry growing in it.

That being said... they are also extremely difficult to transplant. I asked one nursary why they didn't carry Red Huckleberries (after angrily accussing them of previously carrying them) and they said that it was because it was almost impossible for anyone to transplat one. That the often, no, even usually, die. That the only place they grow in nature is in rotting cedar stumps (something I already knew). Well, I ran this past a friend of mine who I had mistakenly thought successfully transplanted some red huckleberries in his own back yard. I was mistaken. He had tried to transplant his huckleberries from one location of his yard to another, and they had all died - all but one. The only one that had survived used to be growing in a rotting cedar stump. My friend had taken his chain saw, and cut out the entire section of cedar stump, and then planted the whole thing (stump and huckleberry bush) and it had survived.

Well, so I had made a similar attempt about a year and a half ago. I finally found a huckleberry buch growing on the roadside one day, and went back to dig it up. Remembering my friend's failure, I dug down deep, and took up as much soil around the plant as I could find. I also discovered interestingly, that deep down in the soil, this plant which looked like it was only growing in dirt, was actually anchored in a hunk of rotting wood (I can only speculate that it was cedar). So, I dug up plant and roots and rotten log, and planted the whole thing in my yard, in wood chips about a foot deep. It has survivied, and this year, I hope, will be first one to give me berries.

But, alas, for my years of trouble one huckleberry bush, eight inches tall, is not a very satisfying thing. So, I have continued my quest for Huckleberries. I have called nursaries, gazed at the side of the road whenever I am passing by a wood, explored, searched, investigated, QUESTED. And I have found nothing.

That is...

Until Today!

Yes, folks, that's why this is a special day... because that huckleberry bush you see in my photo there... that baby is MINE, and she's living right there in my yard now, along with two of her friends.

Yes, I finally found myself some red huckleberry bushes that I could buy! :)

This is a great day, and I feel as though the angels in Heaven are rejoicing at my good fortune. God has indeed shined down upon me and my humble little family.

It all started when I overheard a chance remark... My wife was telling me, "I can't go with Sue to the plant show..." and I said "what plant show?" and my wife said, "some plant show where they have Northwest Native plants..." (That's Sue, James' wife, pictured standing at the bus stop with my wife down below...)

Well, those words got my heart pounding. A new source for Northwest Native plants???? I had to find out more.

Well, to make a long story short, Sue didn't end up going to the plant show either. But I had it in my heart to go, and as difficult as it is sometimes to get my daughter to go out someplace with me (she always wants to stay and home and play for some reason) when I mentioned to my daughter "they might have huckleberries" she was more than willing to come.

And, yes, indeed. The very first man I ran into at the show had a whole bunch of Red Huckleberry bushes. And they weren't a bad price either: 6.00 a pop. I would have paid $30.00 each for them after all these years of searching. (But actually, I am glad to pay only $6 - known how hard it is for Red Huckleberries to survive transplantation.)

Well, so, there you have it. That's one of my new Red Huckleberry bushes. Here's another shot, a close up:

If all goes well (and I'm very hopefull) they will thrive. I've been rotting some cedar (by burying it in the earth) for two years in my yard, and I dug that rotten cedar up and planted a piece of it under each bush. Then, in addition to all that, they've each got about 6 inches of woodchips all around them. If that doesn't do it, I don't know what will.

God have mercy on my berry-loving soul.


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