by Sydney Bender
I spent many summer afternoons of my childhood outdoors. My older brother Andy and I used to play outside and explore in our backyard all day. We knew the season had changed when all the yellow flower bushes had already bloomed and their petals had fallen beneath our feet under the black seats of our swing set. We knew it was summer when our next-door neighbor’s blueberry bush looked more blue than green.
We called it exploring when we reached through our wooden split rail fence into our neighbor’s yard and plucked a blueberry or two from the bush. I grew up in Maryland, and our neighbors had a huckleberry bush right next to their blueberry bush. We were invited to see it after they saw our little arms poking through the fence into their yard. The huckleberry bush grew almost as tall as us. These unfamiliar berries were perfectly round and hung from little thick branches like the silver treasures that dangled from my charm bracelet.
We were more nervous to try the huckleberries because they were unfamiliar and didn’t squish as easily between our fingers. Even after the first taste, we were unsure. They were not as sweet as blueberries and had much bigger seeds. But our curiosity kept us coming back to try the new berries, and soon it was part of our summer afternoon ritual. Before the sky above us turned from baby blue to navy to black, before the swallows spiraled inward and it was time to go inside, my brother and I would pick huckleberries and eat them, sometimes making sour faces at each other, and sometimes smiling, proud of our adventures for the day and the new discoveries we had made outside.
About a decade later I moved away and to Martha’s Vineyard while the rest of my family still lived in Maryland. I notice similarities between my new home and old, but nothing makes me remember my childhood as much as the wild edibles around me. Walks and runs around the Vineyard evoke memories of swinging on the swing set with my brother, picking yellow flowers off the ground, and plucking blueberries and huckleberries off our neighbor’s shrubs to eat.
Huckleberries (Gaylussacia buccata) look similar to chokecherries and blueberries because of their spherical shape and size. They grow in the same environment blueberries grow, in dry or wet soils, or in the woods and bogs. They’re a wild edible with few pest problems. A deciduous shrub, (useful in landscaping), with white flowers that bloom in the springtime and indigo fruit that grows in mid to late summer. Andy and I discovered they’re edible. We learned from our neighbors that they taste good in muffins and, if you gather enough, can be used to make a good tart jam or jelly.
My parents have since put our house in Maryland up for sale and moved to another state. But my home is still here on Martha’s Vineyard. And now, my best childhood memories are evoked by the nature around me. I search for huckleberry bushes wherever I see blueberry bushes. I pluck huckleberries from around the Island. I eat them and think of Andy and baseball and the smells and sounds of a lawnmower in use. It helps me welcome summer before the season changes again and berries are too shriveled up to eat and enjoy.