Updated: Nov 21, 2021
Every winter, retail nurseries fill with a variety of bareroot plants including blueberries that at times I have specified in designs but never grew in my own gardens. Whenever I see them for sale, impulse buy almost succeeds if it weren't for my understanding that blueberries, mostly Vaccinium corymbosum, require more water than I can in good conscience provide. They love humid and highly acidic soils found in their native habitats elsewhere in our country. Drought prevents me from taking the plunge.
I did not always like blueberries; something about their texture and appearance did not appeal to my childhood senses. To be candid, my embrace of their flavors did not occur until I ate a different berry in the genus, Vaccinium ovatum, which helped me overcome whatever I was sensing about blueberries. Our friends deserve my thanks for this switch. When they invited us to their wedding at Mt. Hood's Timberline Lodge, I indulged in the restaurant's offering of cheesecake with wild huckleberries on top. I am still trying to replicate that desert in a meaningful way, starting with planting the evergreen shrubs in my own garden. Now I seek out both blueberries and huckleberries wherever I can find them.
This is why, I believe, coastal huckleberries should be receiving more attention from landscape designers. As natives, they offer evergreen structure while producing edible, delicious fruit that contribute to our local habitats. Sunset describes them as "2-3 ft. high and wide in sun, 8-10 ft. tall and broad in shade" (p. 644), offering interesting options for design. The few I planted in my own garden are slow to establish, but I will confess our soil was not amended to accommodate them. While I hope to reap the reward sometime in the future, their real purpose is to hide our fence, providing an evergreen backdrop to other foreground plantings.
Note for reference: There are native blueberries as well, Vaccinium uliginosum, and its sibling, Vaccinium uliginosum var. occidentale, but I am not familiar with how well they would perform in an ornamental landscape. Unlike our subject coastal huckleberry, however, these blueberries are native to the Sierra Range.
From the Jepson Herbarium, this video helps with various scientific terminology while describing Vaccinium ovatum.
Botanical Name: Vaccinium ovatum
Vaccinium: Latin name for bilberry, another plant within the genus.
Ovatum: Shaped like an egg, as in ovate, uncertain if in reference to the fruit or leaf shapes.
Common Name: Evergreen huckleberry
Family Name: Ericaceae
Origin: Native; Pacific Coast from Santa Barbara to British Columbia
Positioning: Background, woodland margin
Garden Themes: Butterfly, bird, hummingbird, native, kitchen, coastal, winter interest
Uses: Formal and informal hedges, border, mass, screen, edible, floriculture (cut foliage stems)
Type: Evergreen shrub
Form: Upright, spreading
Size: 2'-3' tall and wide in sun; 8' tall by 10' wide in shade (see note below regarding light)
Outstanding Feature(s): Flower, fruit
Stem: Red-brown, may appear lanky, pubescent when young
Shape: Ovate to lanceolate
Color: New growth bronze turning dark green. May turn red in winter
Surface: Glabrous, glossy, leathery
Flower: Spring. Bell shape in axial racemes, pink to white. Fragrant
Fruit: Summer. Red when unripe turning glossy black when ready. Edible
cultural requirements, tolerances & problems
Sunset Zones: 4-7, 14-17, 22-24
USDA Zones: 7-9
Light: Sun (cooler microclimates) to part shade (inland)
WUCOLS SF Bay Area Hydro Zone: Moderate
Texture: Sand, clay
Moisture Retention: Well-drained
pH: Highly acidic to neutral
Tolerances: Fire (above ground systems will die to the ground, but the species can reemerge from root and stem structures)
Problems: The California Native Plant Society warns that this species MAY harbor Phytophthora ramorum, the cause of Sudden Oak Death, and recommends avoid planting in oak woodlands.
Branch Strength: N/A
Insects: Not observed at time of posting
Disease: Not observed at time of posting
citations & attributions
Bayton, R. (2019). The Royal Horticultural Society's the Gardener's Botanical: An Encyclopedia of Latin Plant Names. London: Mitchell Beazley.
Breen, P. "Vaccinium ovatum." Department of Horticulture, College of Agricultural Sciences, Oregon State University, Corvalis. Accessed on October 29, 2021, from https://landscapeplants.oregonstate.edu/plants/vaccinium-ovatum.
Calscape. "Huckleberry." California Native Plant Society, Sacramento. Accessed on October 29, 2021, from https://calscape.org/loc-California/Vaccinium-ovatum-(Huckleberry)?srchcr=sc617c6372ae401.
Norris Brenzel, K. (Ed.). (2012). The New Sunset Western Garden Book. New York: Time Home Entertainment, Inc.
Taxon Report. "Vaccinium ovatum Pursh." Calflora, Berkeley. Accessed on October 29, 2021 from https://www.calflora.org/app/taxon?crn=8200.
Tirmenstein, D. (1990). "Vaccinium ovatum." Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory, Fort Collins. Accessed on October 29, 2021, from https://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/shrub/vacova/all.html.
Water Use Classification of Landscape Species. "WUCOLS IV Plant List." University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Davis. Accessed on October 29, 2021 https://ucanr.edu/sites/WUCOLS/Download_WUCOLS_IV_List/.
Feature fruit detail: "Vaccinium ovatum #4" by James Gaither is licensed under Creative Commons NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).