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Huckleberries may be the right choice for an edible hedge

“I’m your huckleberry — that’s just my game.”

— Walter Noble Burns, “Tombstone: An Iliad of the Southwest,” 1927

In Walter Burns’ classic Western, he describes events that occurred on the dusty streets of Tombstone, Arizona, a few days after the infamous gunfight at the OK Corral. As the legend goes, an intoxicated Johnny Ringo confronted the Earp brothers and challenged them to another fight. When they refused, Ringo taunted, “Don’t any of you have the guts to play for blood?” Doc Holliday, who had been listening while relaxing in front of the barbershop, stood up and called out, “I’m your huckleberry — that’s just my game.”

John Henry “Doc” Holliday was Wyatt Earp’s close friend, as well as a gambler, gunfighter and a dentist. A well-read man, Holliday’s use of the huckleberry expression referred to the ancient tales of King Arthur. According to folklore, whenever a knight was called upon to defend a member of the kingdom, the knight would accept a garland of huckleberry to pledge his loyalty and service. As a result, “I’m your huckleberry” became a familiar way of saying, “I’m the right person for this job.”

I have lots of huckleberry shrubs on my land in Bandon, although they are not the same species that would have grown in medieval England. My evergreen huckleberries are Vaccinium ovatum, related to blueberries and one of more than a dozen species within the Vaccinium genus that are native to the Pacific Northwest.

V. ovatum proliferates west of the Cascade Mountains from British Columbia to California. Along the Oregon Coast, evergreen huckleberries are common understory shrubs in mixed evergreen forests because they grow well in sun or shade, like acidic soils around conifer trees, and don’t mind salty air or strong coastal winds.

However, evergreen huckleberries also grow well farther inland in USDA Hardiness Zones 6-9, at elevations ranging from sea level up to 2,600 feet. The shrubs usually grow from 2 to 8 feet tall, but they may grow up to 15 feet in shady woodlands. They have small, glossy leaves and reddish stems that make popular foliage for floral arrangements. Fragrant, pinkish-white, bell-shaped flowers that bloom in the spring are attractive to hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. The small, purple-black berries are ready to eat in late summer and early fall.

Slow-growing and long-lived, evergreen huckleberry has an upright, spreading growth habit, making it useful as an edible hedge. With low water requirements and tolerance for a wide variety of soils and temperatures as cold as 10 degrees, no wonder The Wild Garden website, which maintains an extensive database of PNW native plants, calls V. ovatum “a must-have for every native garden.”

Unfortunately, many of my huckleberry bushes have grown spindly and nonproductive from overcrowding, too much shade, and not enough pollination. To rehabilitate them, first I need to thin out some of the plants that are growing too close to the huckleberry bushes I want to save. Even for hedging, they should be spaced 3-4 feet apart. Next month, I’ll prune out dead and old-growth branches, and some of the shrubs will be cut all the way back to short stubs. In 3-4 years, they should have a beautiful, bushy shape.

Encouraging new growth and providing better air circulation and more sunlight will help my huckleberry bushes produce flowers and set fruit. I’ll also plant native flowers nearby to attract more pollinators.

Before Walter Burns wrote “Tombstone” in the 1920s, Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) was searching for a name for Tom Sawyer’s best friend in his 1876 novel, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” Although it’s not certain how Clemens came up with the name Huckleberry, it might have had something to do with an incident that had occurred a few years earlier.

In order to avoid a libel suit, the author had to rename a character in his book, “The Gilded Age” (1873) from Col. George Sellers to Mulberry Sellers. Perhaps he was thinking of mulberry when he decided upon huckleberry, a plant similar to Twain’s character in that both are resilient and thrive in the wild.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.