For a moment there, the jam project seemed to be a huckleberry over my persimmon.

This old English saying means just a bit over my ability; and when my huckleberry jam turned rock hard last week, I thought that I might be in just that kind of pickle. With the Slow Food dinner a day away and six person-hours invested in the picking, cleaning, and preparing of the wild huckleberry jam, I needed an intervention. Not necessarily divine, just a solution to my unspreadable jam.

Luckily, it was nothing a little water and a French chef couldn’t fix.

Not that I went into this jam-making project lightly. I looked up recipes on the Internet and in cookbooks, carefully chose a simple one without pectin, and conferred with the ladies of my knitting group who had years of black huckleberry jam-making experience regarding the amount of sugar and whether a thickener was necessary. Anyone who tasted my wild black huckleberry jam-filled sugar cookies at the Slow Food event knows that this story had a happy ending.

Black huckleberries are ripe and ready for the picking. These bulbous berries have no reason to be blue — berries or otherwise. While often confused and used interchangeably in recipes with blueberries, black huckleberries have their own distinct identity.

Gaylussacia baccata is the commonly found huckleberry on the Island.

This genus, which includes other varieties of black huckleberries, was named for the French chemist and Professor J. L. Gay-Lussac. He discovered boron, as well as a law describing gases under pressure, and has a yellow mineral named for him. Perhaps the yellow mineral is why this chemist was honored with the name of a delicious berry. On the underside of the leaves of black huckleberry are yellow resin dots.

These dots help differentiate black huckleberry from blueberry, which has a flat, matte finish on the underside of its leaves. Additionally note the color of the berry; the darker, richer black color of the huckleberry versus the blue of the blueberry. This color is what might have given way to the alias hurtleberry, from hurt, referring to the color of a bruise, which matches the hue of these berries. A final indicator that you have a black huckleberry and not a blueberry is the ten nutlets, or small hard seeds, found within the black huckleberry.

Somehow the small berry took on more meanings in British slang. It was a synonym for something small, humble, minor and insignificant. One literal example noted that someone was “within a huckleberry of being smothered to death.” Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was so named to say that he was lower or less important than Tom Sawyer.

No matter how insignificant the character, the berry, or a need, huckleberry (or a huckleberry connoisseur) can serve the purpose. Whether it is jam that you want, a nature question answered, or just a weekly column written, I might be the right person for the job. Or to borrow another Gaylussacia quote from Doc Holliday in the 1993 movie Tombstone, “I’m your huckleberry.”


Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.