As my hiking companions trudged up the mountain ahead of me, I crouched to inspect tiny, vibrant, red blossoms on a trailside bush.
“I actually don’t think these are blueberries,” I mused while snapping a few photos.
By then my husband, Derek, and our dog, Juno, were too far ahead to hear my botanical observations. Soon enough they’d notice that I was no longer hiking behind them, and they wouldn’t be surprised. I often stop to inspect things in nature.
Confident that my companions would eventually stop and wait for me, I fished out my phone and opened the Seek mobile app, which uses image recognition technology to identify plants and animals. According to the app, I was looking at a black huckleberry bush.
That sounded correct (and I later confirmed it with the guidebook, “Plants of Acadia”). I’d heard about huckleberries before. They grow wild in Maine. In fact, black huckleberries grow in such specific conditions that they’re challenging to cultivate. Most people just find them in the wild if they want to harvest them.
Though I can’t remember ever eating one, black huckleberries are edible. They’re often described as similar to a blueberry in taste, but milder and with more “crunch” due to having larger seeds. They can also be tart, especially if not quite ripe.
Once I identified that huckleberry bush on Mansell Mountain, I started noticing them all over the place, their crimson blossoms easy to pick out.
The next day, I hiked the neighboring Beech Mountain to find even more huckleberry bushes, especially on the Canada Cliffs Trail. In some places, the thick bushes lined the trail, forming a dense thicket that demanded I stay on the beaten path.
In August and September, those bushes will be filled with plump, black berries.
I originally assumed that they were blueberry bushes because Acadia is filled with wild blueberries. They’re absolutely everywhere. In the woods, on the mountains. Blueberries are all over the place in the park. Plus, huckleberry and blueberry blossoms are both similar in shape — sort of like a bell or upside-down vase. However, all blueberries I’ve seen have pink or white blossoms, not red.
When it comes to plant identification, I consider myself a novice, which is a fun stage of learning. I’m often fascinated by the plants that I manage to identify. The huckleberry discovery, for instance, had me running up the trail to tell my husband.
“Huckleberries! They’re everywhere!” I exclaimed, then proceeded to invent a song for my dog called “Huckleberry June.” These are the types of things you do when hiking. It made perfect sense at the time.
I had to stop a few more times during that hike. After all, chokeberry and three-toothed cinquefoil plants were also in bloom, their white flowers sprouting from cracks in the granite.
The whole experience got me thinking about just how many berries there are in the wilderness. Growing up in Maine, I learned about just a few of the tastiest of those berries.
Firstly, I learned about wild strawberries, which can often be found growing on lawns or along the side of the road. They become ripe in June. I remember picking them while waiting for the school bus in the morning.
Then, across the road from my childhood home, a bunch of wild raspberries grew on thorny bushes. We’d pick those late summer.
On Islesboro, an island where my family would camp during the summer when I was a child, we used to pick massive blackberries from bushes that grew in a field near our camper. The black bears liked those bushes, too. We’d always keep an eye out for them and make extra noise while picking, just to let them know we were there. It’s never good to spook a bear, even the kind that usually runs away.
Lastly, I learned about wild blueberries from a young age. I remember picking them on Mount Waldo in Frankfort as a little girl. We’d often buy big bags of them from local farmers, then store them in the freezer for the mornings when my dad would sprinkle them into our pancakes.
Huckleberries, however, are not on the list of berries I learned as a child. They aren’t as abundant or well-known as the other sweet berries of Maine. But I’m sure there are some Mainers out there that did grow up eating them.
I’ve always been told: “Don’t eat random berries you find in the forest.” It’s a good lesson. Some berries are toxic to humans, and some simply don’t taste good. But now that I’m all grown up, I’m becoming curious about all the berries I may have been missing out on.
Black chokeberries, for instance, are edible but taste best if cooked. Bearberries, which also grow in abundance on the mountains of Acadia National Park, are also edible and can be made into a nice tea. The Indigenous people of Maine have been eating these berries and using them in medicines for thousands of years.
Of course, it’s always important to positively identify a berry before popping it in your mouth. And, as with most things, moderation is key when eating wild plants, even if they are listed as “edible.”
This summer, as blossoms turn to berries, I plan to pay attention to some of the lesser-known berries out there. I’ll certainly pick a huckleberry or two.