Huckleberries and Fire, Part One

Following is the first in a three part article on Huckleberries and Fire by Malcolm Dell aka Mr. Huckleberry

Wild huckleberries of the genus Vaccinium – common to the western US and parts of Europe – are rhizomatous, forming colonies of bushes that are really just one plant. A seed sprouts, and then the roots (called rhizomes) spread through the soil, popping up stems in the adjacent area, thereby forming a “patch”.

Huckleberries & Fire

This characteristic of huckleberries leads to the myth that hucks cannot be commercialized. People go to the woods, shovel up a stem/rhizome (which is really just a twig or branch), and stick it in the ground at home, in an inappropriate soil type. Results are predictable.

Note that huckleberry soils are highly acidic – a common trait of the rich coniferous and sub-alpine forest habitats where they are found.

Huckleberries actually grow very easily from their VERY tiny seeds. Smear ripe berries across a paper towel or fine wire mess such as a dense strainer, let them dry and save them. Carefully! Breathing on them may send them flying.

But that is another story.

So, the questions here becomes… how does fire affect huckleberry ecology and future crops? And what can we expect in the aftermath of an historic fire season…one that affected many tens of thousands of acres of potential huckleberry habitat?

Generally, huckleberry colonies or patches – like virtually all brushy species – are heavily stimulated by fire.

After a fire, competition for space, water, and nutrients is reset to zero; the darker soil attracts early spring warmth; and the burnt plant materials fertilize the soil with massive amounts of mineral-rich ash. Roots that survive the fire (most do), sprout with a vengeance the following spring. After almost any fire, the landscape literally turns into a far richer green than it was the spring before the fire.

For some species, fire “scarifies” seeds or cones, allowing them to sprout more easily after a fire, as part of their natural ecology. Examples would be lodgepole pine and red-stem ceonothus (a preferred elk browse).

Of course, fire intensity may affect which species are promoted after a fire, and whether huckleberries come back.

Hucks grow best in full sunlight, up to about 30% shade, at which time the colonies begin to decline. So, openings from fire (historically) and clearcutting (more recently), are usually critical to an abundance of healthy patches. Sometimes patches also rejuvenate after insects or disease remove the coniferous overstory, letting in sunlight.

Stay tuned for Part 2

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