I told you at the beginning of the year that I was going to plant a couple of rows of garden huckleberries on the advice of one of my neighbors, who loves them for pies.
I did my research, was surprised at the fear and skepticism surrounding these little things, but planted them anyway.
I started them from seed in my milk jugs along with everything else last spring. They sprouted just fine and managed to evade the puppy destruction experienced by the peppers and most of the baby tomatoes and I was able to get 14 plants in a bed [2 rows] along with the brassicas and some later tomatoes. I planted them 18 inches apart in wide rows.
They bloomed white flowers in small loose clusters at the end of branches, and kept on growing. And blooming. The bees liked them and soon there were green berries on the clusters and soon the berries expanded to the size of small blueberries and turned black. And the little bushes kept on going. And going. And going. At one point the margined blister beetles attacked. They go after the leaves, not the fruit. I spent two or three days picking those little buggers off into soapy water and that seemed to take care of it.
One of the sites I read through was by a guy who liked eating garden huckleberries right off the bush as soon as they turned black. Another said to wait to harvest until after the first frost. I tried one fresh berry in the summer when one cluster was good and black. It was utterly disgusting. Think of a blueberry that tastes somehow sort of like an unripe tomato.
Hmm. But that other article had said to wait until after the first frost, so I let them go thinking I'd harvest and make one batch of jam in October and if they were awful, I'd chalk it up to a learning experience and never do it again.
And October came and the bushes were loaded with black berries. And it frosted a couple of times and I shanghaied my youngest and we spent 20 minutes stripping the plants of the berries, except for a few for seeds just in case.
Note: These babies stain in a BIG way. Wear junk clothes when you work with them. The stains do not wash out, which means they are an underutilized plant for natural dyeing. I got a gorgeous blue on the cloth I used to strain with. We'll see how fugitive it is and maybe do more experimenting next year. One very cool thing is that they stain your hands purple, but when you wash your hands with soap, it turns the foam bright screaming blue. Bright. Screaming. Blue. I had to wash several times before the foam was the normal color again.
The best information on cooking them came from Mother Earth News. Remember - these are no substitute for blueberries. You can't just drop a handful in muffins. They must be softened and sweetened before you use them.
I got about a gallon and a half of huckleberries from my 14 plants. I decided since mine were very ripe, I'd skip the baking soda boil recommended here. I dumped them all in a large pot and added enough plain water to barely cover. Then I boiled the living daylights out of them for about 2 hours, until they were soft enough to crush with a potato masher. I crushed and crushed. When I'd had enough of the crushing, I strained them through cheesecloth, kept the juice and tossed the seeds and skins to the chickens. Next year I'll save those for dyeing.
I made one batch of jelly using my regular jelly recipe - just to taste - and it was..... Delicious! And really pretty! The taste is somewhere between grape and a very bright blueberry. I had enough juice for three batches total. Here's the recipe:
Garden Huckleberry Jelly
4 cups huckleberry juice
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/3 cup Dutch Gel All Natural Lite pectin [You can substitute Ball or Sure-Jel, just make sure it's the low sugar type.]
2 cups sugar [or more, to taste]
Bring huckleberry juice, lemon juice and pectin to hard rolling boil. Maintain boil for 1 minute. Add sugar and return to hard rolling boil. Boil for 1 minute. Ladle into jars and process for canning.
Soooo - I asked the family - Will we plant these again? The unanimous answer was a resounding YES. They were easy to start from seed. The plants are easy to grow in our zone 5B heavily amended clay soil. I basically ignored them all summer long. The jelly is delicious. I'd like to try making pie filling with it next year, too. I will wait again until after the first frost to harvest, then cook them and divide them up for pie filling and for jelly.
I will definitely save the spent seeds and skins for dyeing, as well as a bit of the whole fruit to see if there's a difference in color. Because of the wide difference in color when exposed to acid [fuchsia] and alkali [green to blue], I'm expecting that wools [acid] and cottons [alkali] can be dyed very differently, or at the very least I can get a difference in color on the same fiber with a post dyeing dip in vinegar or ammonia. We'll see.