THROUGH THE WOODS: Blueberries vs. huckleberries

WHEN WE WERE KIDS our maternal grandmother, Helen Shepard Wambach (Gram), always referred to blueberries as huckleberries. This was probably from her New England background when early colonists called them hurtleberries which was a type of European blueberry. Hurtleberries eventually evolved to the name huckleberries.

There are many varieties of these blueberry/huckleberry bushes that are difficult to tell apart and can range from one foot to 12 feet tall, with berries tasting tart to sweet. Color can be black, blue, red, or dark purple. Apparently, there are some still actually called huckleberries that have 10 large, hard seeds per berry, while blueberries have many small, soft seeds. As far as I can remember, all the blueberries I have eaten in the Austerlitz area have had small seeds.

I am not an expert on the subject and will leave this to the botanists. Most of ours were sweet, with the best ones in a clearing in the woods on my father’s farm. We had lots of shale outcroppings and rock, which helped keep big shade trees from growing. When we were young, we were sent out to learn and glean whatever edible berries we could find. My mother said they got most of their blueberries from a side road off the Dugway Road going east from Spencertown past the farm, which is the current Austerlitz Club. This area is so overgrown now I doubt that blueberries can grow.

Blueberries. Photo contributed

Local stories have told of Native Americans burning off plots of land, which got rid of the tree growth, ensuring abundant blueberry bushes which naturally grew up from roots and seeds in the soil. The ashes added fertilizer. Fruit was very important for their diet too and was often sun dried.

On our farms and my current portion of my grandparents’ farm, blueberry bushes still pop up when trees are cleared. They are the low bush type and can be quite a tangle to walk through. I used to sit down in them to more easily pick berries to fill my tin pail. Rarely, a startled snake might slither through. I didn’t mind except for the huge black snakes. If with my grandfather, he brought a big basket or milk pail, and we dumped our small portions into it. When we got home my grandmother spread out some in a pan to clean them and we picked out the leaves, twigs, bugs, etc. Then they were prepared for eating or canning.

The catbirds are very adept at getting the berries before I can, so I leave them to it and buy the larger, sweeter blueberries from the stores and local farms. My grandparents didn’t have that option and had to preserve as much fruit as possible to get them and their families through the winter. Gram always canned and had shelves of glass jars in the damp cellar of the big farmhouse. Her blueberries were mixed with sugar and often poured over my great-grandmother’s recipe, a hot milk cake for a special dessert. Yum!

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