ERICACEAE, The Heath family
Of all of the native shrubs that do well in urban gardens, evergreen huckleberry is one of the best. It’s attractive throughout the year and can be used as a hedge, ‘foundation planting’, or accent shrub. Beyond its ornamental qualities, it’s a good wildlife plant, its edible and easy to grow.
This member of the heath family (Ericaceae) is taller than most, at 3 to 15 feet. Usually in a garden setting it will be 4-6 feet tall. Like most of its kin, it prefers acidic, evenly moist but not saturated soils. Amend soil with compost when planting, then mulch well. In partial shade, evergreen huckleberry can thrive with very little supplemental water once established. It can also do great in full sun but will require regular watering. Either way, it’s growth is on the slow side but they will start producing handfuls of berries in the first couple years.
The tasty berries ripen in late summer to early fall or even after a frost. They are shiny and dark purple and when the plant is mature, abundant. They can be eaten fresh, frozen for winter smoothies and baking, or made into jam or pie. Like many darkly pigmented berries including their close relatives the blueberries, they are full of healthy vitamins and anti-oxidants. Unlike cultivated blueberries which have been highly bred for commercial production, evergreen huckleberry’s genes are close to it’s wild ancestors and contain much higher quantities of beneficial phyto-chemicals.
Wildlife also benefit greatly from this shrub. The small, bell-shaped pink or white flowers bloom early and provide nectar for foraging bees, overwintering hummingbirds and early butterflies. It is a host plant for butterfly larvae as well, and many birds and mammals eat the fruits. The branches are browsed by deer and are beautiful in cut flower arrangements.
Evergreen huckleberry can be found in the wild in the forests of the Coast and Cascade ranges, and it grows along the Coastal dunes among shore pine and Pacific wax myrtle where is can grow to be quite tall. I first saw it growing between the sand dunes near Florence, Oregon.