The Hoverter Sholl Box Huckleberry
Can you name a plant that covers 8 acres of land, is 1300 years old,
will protect you and bring you luck as you enter the new year?
My quest to find an herb worthy of being featured as the first in a series for 2021 unfolded magically! My daughter Mycenea self quarantined for 14 days, as did I, so we could be together for Christmas. We spent a lot of time outdoors, and one of our favorite jaunts was to visit the Hoverter and Sholl Box Huckleberry in Perry County, Pennsylvania.
The box huckleberry is a member of the acidic soil loving Ericaceae family, which include azaleas, rhododendron, trailing arbutus, cranberries and blueberries, among others. Unlike the giant Sequoias and the Bristlecone pines, known for their their age, the box huckleberry is only about a half a foot tall. It covers the forest floor and can easily be overlooked.
The box huckleberry and blueberry are often confused, but there are differences. The blueberry grows in clusters, and the box huckleberry, as well as the huckleberry, has more singular berries, with occasional small clusters. Though the skin of all of the berries are blue, the blueberry is white or light green inside, and the huckleberry and box huckleberries have a deep red violet or purple inner flesh with a tendency to stain.
There are several folk names for the Huckleberries, including Blaeberry, Whortleberry, Bilberry and Hurtleberry. Bilberry is a folk name for the Blueberry. It gets confusing. Fortunately, scientists use Latin names to provide clarification. We are referring to the box huckleberry (Gaylussacia brachycera) in this case.
There were two box huckleberry plants in the area we visited. One, at Losh Run, is thought to be over 13,000 years old! Bristlecone pines, at 5,000 years old, were considered to be the oldest living organisms on earth, yet the box huckleberry is significantly older. The age is determined by the rate of growth, approximately 6 inches a year, and was calculated by the size of the plants.
The Losh Run Box Huckleberry, which at one time covered an area of about 100 acres, nearly 10 times larger than the Hoveter Sholl, was damaged by a forest fire in 1963, then partially destroyed during the 1970s due to road construction of U.S. 22/322. The remainder is in an area difficult to access.
The younger plant is estimated to be 1,200 to 1,300 years old, and fortunately has been in a protected area as a National Natural Landmark since 1929. The 8 plus acre box huckleberry, named because its leaves resemble boxwood, is situated within a 10 acres area in Tuscarora State Forest with a quarter mile path around the plant. Twenty-seven stations along the loop give an educational overview.
The Hoveter Sholl plant was discovered in 1845 by Spencer Fullerton Baird, a professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle. He was a naturalist and later became the first curator of the Smithsonian Institution, advancing to become the second Secretary of the institution.
The box huckleberries were almost forgotten until 1948 when Dr. Fredrick Coville, a graduate of Cornell University working for the Department of Agriculture, determined the plants, one covering over 8 acres, and the other nearly 100 acres, were each individual massive plants! The relict species, miraculously surviving the ice age, is considered self-sterile, and reproduces through a system of root stalks.
This remarkable plant has not always been well revered. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is probably the most well know of the huckleberries, and in an interview in an interview in 1895, Twain said he used the name to indicate Finn was a boy “of lower distraction” than Mark Twain.
A more positive huckleberry reference was featured in the song Moon River in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It is beautifully explained by Jessica Dang, Single Girl Dinner. “For years I had no idea what it meant: "My huckleberry friend." It hung in my mind. I searched Paul Varjak's relationship with Holly Golightly for the answer. Theirs was a mutual adoration laced with innocent flirtation; there was a certain playfulness that freed them from being neither friends nor lovers."
On New Year’s Eve, the residents of New Bloomfield, PA traditionally assemble to pay homage to their oldest resident. They lower a huge huckleberry from the courthouse clock tower at midnight to pay tribute to this humble herb. This year’s pandemic will prevent the assemblage, but they will hopefully meet on New Year’s Eve next year to honor this enormous, ancient plant.
As you enter 2021, I wish you the blessings of huckleberry! May you gather magic and find luck and protection in “berried treasures”, I’m hoping there will be unexpected blessings and virtues all around you. And may each of you find a ‘Huckleberry friend”!
“Everyone should have a huckleberry friend at one point or another.
It is an experience that showers your life with magic for as long as it lasts,
whether it be for a couple of weeks or a couple of years.”
~ Jessica Dang, Single Girl Dinner, #SingleGirlDinner
"My mission is
to help others see and cherish the beauty,
romance and treasures within and around them
that are often dismissed or completely overlooked."
Mikell is a writer, artist and professional treasure hunter, finding the greatest treasures in the wonderful people who enter her life!