A Family Resemblance
by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator
I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!
One of my beloved families of plants is the heath family. So much of our mountainside ecosystem consists of adored representatives of the heath family, such as rhododendron, mt. laurel, and azalea. Once those beauties are done flowering, my focus switches to the less ornate but much more edifying to the stomach varieties such as blueberry, huckleberry, and deerberry. These species tend to occupy the same acidic, poor soil locations at Wintergreen and can be a bit tricky to identify. The goal with this edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist is to help in you feel comfortable differentiating the family resemblance.
Blueberry is my preferred berry option at Wintergreen. The lowbush blueberry, the most common blueberry variety in our ecosystem, offers a tasty, light blue to black berry that is packed in vitamins our bodies crave. The berry is packed in anthocyanin which gives the berry its color and health benefits. The main feature for identification purposes is the green stem down to the ground. While some heath species have green stems close to the leaves, blueberry’s stem is green all the way to the ground. Lowbush blueberry stays low to the ground, rarely rising above three feet in height. The leaf is a dull green on top with a pale almost white underside. The species most often confused with blueberry is huckleberry.
Huckleberry is very similar to blueberry in stature and shape. Both species have white, bell shaped flowers hanging under the stem in mid spring. Their main differences are found in stem color and fruit consistency. The stem of huckleberry is a gray brown with finely peeling bark as opposed to the green on blueberry. The fruit of huckleberry, which is also very nutritious, is distinguished from blueberry by their ten large seeds that are very noticeable when eating huckleberry fruit. Another difference between the two species is found on the underside of the leaf. With the use of a hand lens, yellow resin dots can be seen.
A species that is often confused with huckleberry is deerberry. Deerberry is similar to huckleberry due to its gray brown finely peeling bark and white, bell shaped flowers. The structure of deerberry is a bit different than huckleberry and blueberry in that it reaches up to 10 feet in height and has a leggy appearance. The fruit is a dull purplish berry that ripens mid to late summer and tends to lack the sweetness associated with huckleberry and especially blueberry.
One last species that should be known when picking berries amongst the heath varieties is minniebush. Minniebush looks similar to huckleberry and deerberry in structure with very similar flowers blooming at the same time. This species is easily confused with the previously discussed heath species with a couple obvious distinctions that clear up confusion. The first is on the leaf. Minniebush leaves have a uniquely white tip on the end. The other major difference is that their fruit is not edible. Instead of a lovely blue berry perfect for popping into your mouth, minniebush’s fruit is an oblong woody capsule maturing in mid to late summer.
The time is upon us to get out on the trails and appreciate the heath family for more than lovely flower displays. The time has come to eat to our hearts content among our stands of different heath plants. Use these identification techniques to feel more comfortable eating your way through the woods. Enjoy!