Following is the second in a three part article on Huckleberries and Fire by Malcolm Dell aka Mr. Huckleberry
Smokey the Bear has probably destroyed more huckleberry habitat than any other single factor. He is an icon for fire suppression programs in US forests, triggered by large fires in the early 1900s.
(I am not saying Smokey is bad, as the loss of natural and human resources from fire is catastrophic. But like anything else, there is a price to be paid when we disrupt Mother Nature.)
Native Americans understood the benefits of fire on the landscape, and regularly started fires to rejuvenate and promote desirable berries and other species. In fact, early non-native explorers to the Pacific Northwest often talked about the hazy smoke that filled the mountains from man-caused fires, in addition to the natural fires.
After a fire, huckleberries will start sprouting from rhizomes if there is still living tissue in the soil, not sterilized by fire intensity. Also, seeds that survive the fire, or dropped by birds or bears, can restart the huck population.
Huckleberries reproduce kind of like insects, using masses of tiny seeds to win the competition with other plants. Seedlings are VERY tiny, one or two inches the first spring, and can be so thick they almost form a thin carpet. They are hard to recognize when sprouting, as they do not look much like huckleberry leaves or plants.
(And of course, due to seeding, rhizomatous colonies can intertwine.)
Due to their diminutive competitive size, seedling survival is very, very low. But if one seed prevails, and takes root, a colony begins forming. And they grow like the dickens once established.
Unfortunately, dozens (maybe hundreds) of plant species are following a similar protocol, in a race to take over as much space as they can after fire. But if a huck patch forms, the rhizomes often shoulder out lesser competition to create a nice patch. Purple fingers here we come!
Typically, it may take five years (on average) from seed – less from rhizomes – to begin bearing fruits on the bushes, depending on competition and sunlight. And they should bear for 10 or 15 years. After this time, you may see reduced vigor, and larger brush species (e.g. maple, willow) often choke them out. And conifers that seed in from adjacent mature trees, or from tree planting programs, often start shading out all the brush, including huckleberries.
The best thing that could happen at that point, to rejuvenate huckleberries, is a nice fire.
Stay tuned for Part Three