Every year we northwest lowlanders make pilgrimages to the mountains to savor Vaccinium deliciosum, Cascade blueberries (aka blueleaf huckleberry, Cascade bilberry, or Rainier blueberry). This low-growing and widespread blueberry lives up to its Latin name, for the fruit is truly delicious. When you find a patch loaded with fruit you can feast for a long time on sweet tastiness.
In this low-snow, warm-summer year the blueberries have ripened earlier than usual. Last weekend Natalie and I hiked out to Low Pass and High Pass, above Twin Lakes and just south of Mount Larrabee. In many places the trail is cut into a steep slope and we could graze on blueberries at waist level without even having to bend over. It can’t get much better than that!
Cascade blueberries are common and widespread in the mountains from British Columbia down to California. They’re one of several species of blueberries and huckleberries that grow in our region (all of them tasty). You’ll often find them growing with both pink and white mountain heathers, forming a dense but low-growing carpet across wide swaths of alpine and sub-alpine mountainsides. Cascade blueberry plants are usually just 6-12 inches tall, with alternate leaves up to 1.5” long. Blooming almost immediately after the snow melts, urn-shaped pinkish flowers dangle singly in the leaf axils. The flowers are about the same size as the fruit, which ripens to a deep blue with a whitish waxy coating.
In typical years, the fruit ripens about the same time the foliage turns brilliant scarlet, seemingly lighting the hillsides on fire in the afternoon sunlight. Bears like the fruit as much as humans so you’ll often find large piles of bear scat near blueberry patches.
Like most subalpine plants, Vaccinium deliciosum is challenging to grow as a garden plant. It needs moist humus-rich soil with a lot of organic matter, nearly full sun, and protection from drying winter winds. In its natural mountain home it is buried under deep snow up to 9 months of the year so it never experiences winter wind. This is a plant I’m just going to enjoy when I visit the mountains.
You can enjoy more photos of Cascade blueberries on my Pacific Northwest Wildflowers website.