Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Red huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium)


Graceful, open, and vibrantly green, red huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) is a quintessential Pacific Northwest native shrub. It’s not often used in garden situations, but it ought to be, considering its beauty and wildlife appeal. And unlike other native huckleberries that ripen in late summer or fall, red huckleberry typically offers dazzlingly red (and tasty) fruit in mid to late summer.

Part of the appeal of this deciduous huckleberry is its bright green, twiggy, angled branches that support smooth, oval, and equally green leaves. Flowers are small, urn-shaped and greenish-yellow, but often have a lovely pink hue. Fruit is a spherical berry high in vitamin C, which ripens to a brilliant red. At maturity, it typically reaches five to ten feet tall and nearly as wide, although it can grow larger in optimal conditions. 

Wildlife value
In late spring to early summer (depending on elevation and latitude) blossoms attract hummingbirds, native bees, and other insects. Berries are attractive to both humans and wildlife: Birds such as flickers, jays, thrushes, chickadees, towhees and bluebirds, and mammals, including deer mice, white-footed mice, raccoons, pika, ground squirrels, chipmunks, and foxes. Reportedly, the fruit is a big part of black and grizzly bears’ late summer and autumn diet. With time, this shrub may form a thicket, which provides shelter or nesting sites for small birds and mammals.

How it grows
The key to a healthy eco-garden is the choice of plants that fit your conditions and are locally native. Of course we don’t always have the exact conditions a plant requires, especially in urban situations where natural conditions have been drastically changed. Red huckleberry is a plant that will probably need some extra encouragement, but I think it’s worth the added effort. When selecting which plants will join your garden, always check on the circumstances in which it’s found in the natural world, where it’s found, and choose accordingly. 

Red huckleberry occurs naturally in the understory of moist coniferous or mixed evergreen forests, sometimes in the transition zone of wetlands or at forest edges, at low to middle elevations from southeastern Alaska and British Columbia, southward through western Washington and Oregon to central California. While it’s quite tolerant of shade (and usually grows larger in shade), it can do well in a woodland garden with some sun if it’s not drought stricken or in hot afternoon sun. Plants that get some sun, including those found in forest openings, generally appear lusher and produce more fruit if other requirements are met. It’s usually found in humus-rich soil growing on some rotting wood — often a fallen log or an old stump — so be sure to include some in very close proximity to your new plant. In a nutshell, it needs mostly shady sites (with perhaps some morning sun or dappled sunlight) and moist — but somewhat well drained — acidic soil (pH 4.5 – 6) that has plenty of organic matter, as well as some rotting wood to grow on.

Try it at home
A few autumns ago, I added a gallon-sized individual to a backyard bed situated to the north of some large native conifers, which provide some shade. My slightly acidic soil had been amended with organic matter over the years and allowed to accumulate natural plant debris, and I added what will really help its survival: Rotting downed wood to latch onto. I finished off my planting with a layer of leaf compost, topped by a few handfuls of conifer needles and cones blown down from nearby trees, all of which help retain moisture and keep pH on the acidic side. I water it deeply but infrequently during dry periods. One last tip: Vaccinium species don’t do well with root disturbance, so don’t dig in the soil near its roots or attempt to move it after it’s been in the ground for more than a year or so.

At planting time, provide red huckleberry with a growing medium of decaying stumps or logs to mimic natural conditions.

Grab a partner
In coastal forests, red huckleberry is commonly associated with plants such as mature western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) and sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), black huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum), oval leaf huckleberry (V. ovalifolium), salmonberry (Rubus spectablis), thimbleberry (R. parviflorus), trailing blackberry (R. ursinus), strawberry bramble (R. pedatus), salal (Gaultheria shallon), Cascade Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa), bunchberry (Cornus unalaschkensis), lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina), oak fern (Gymnocarpium spp.), and woodland strawberry (Frageria vesca). In southwestern Oregon and northern California, Pinemat manzanita (Arctostaphylos nevadensis), California coffeeberry (Rhamnus california), baldhip rose (Rosa gymnocarpa), California laurel (Umbellularia californica), boxleaf silktassel (Garrya buxifolia), and huckleberry oak (Quercus vaccinifolia) are often associated. In the western Cascades below 5,000 feet, it’s found with mature western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), western redcedar (Thuja plicata) and Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), as well as vine maple (Acer circinatum), salal (Gaultheria shallon), salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis), Cascade Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa), sword fern (Polystichum munitum), deer fern (Blechnum spicant), fairy bells (Prosartes spp.), bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa), foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata), and many others.

 © 2023 Eileen M. Stark

2 thoughts on Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Red huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium)

  1. Mine are like 5 feet tall, I have like 10 plants on the edge of a cranberry bedding. This year I installed a foil tent over them as I noticed that one planted next to a rhododendron is lusher and vitalized.

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