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Huckleberry plants are small colony-forming shrubs that average 50 centimeters tall. The tiny berries closely resemble blueberries, but lack the dusty white bloom and instead have a slight sheen. When fully ripe, they are such a deep shade of blue that they appear almost black. Their inner juicy flesh offers blueberry-like flavors with hints of blackberry and cassis.
Huckleberries are available in fresh form during the summer months.
Botanically classified as Gaylussacia baccata, the Black huckleberry is the most commonly found variety of its genus. Other species of huckleberries include, Red, White, Squaw, Californian and the Southern cranberry. The name, Huckleberry is a corruption of "hurtleberry”, a type of whortleberry, applied to bilberries or blueberries. However, this is a bit of a misnomer, as the huckleberry has a different interior structure. Opposed to bilberries or blueberries, which contain multiple small crunchy seeds, the huckleberry is technically a drupe as its seeds are slightly larger.
Black huckleberries are a rich source of antioxidants, the B vitamin complex, vitamin C, potassium and iron.
Black huckleberries may be used fresh, but due to their very short shelf life, are most often found frozen. They are very well suited for baked goods such as, pies, muffins, cookies, breads, pancakes and cobblers. Huckleberries make great jellies, jams, compotes and syrups alone or in combination with other berries such as strawberries and raspberries. A vinegar made from the juice of Black huckleberries can be used for a gastrique with wild game or in a vinaigrette for salads. Combine the berries with a touch of maple syrup, mustard and lemon to pour over cedar planked salmon. They may be added to a reduction of Pinot Noir, shallots and herbs for a sauce that pairs well with lamb, pork or duck. Other complimentary flavors include, citrus, figs, raisins, cranberries, cream, cardamom, vanilla, and baking spices such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.
Northwest American Indian tribes relied on Black huckleberries a natural source of dye and for a food source that would last through the winter. The berries were dried in the sun or smoked, then mashed into cakes and wrapped in leaves for storage. Special combs of wood or salmon backbones were used to strip huckleberries off the bushes.
Huckleberries are native to North America, specifically from Wyoming west to Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and up to Alaska. Only found growing in the wild, they have always resisted cultivation and remain a forager’s favorite treasure. They are a main food source for a wide range of animals including deer, birds, rodents, insects most importantly, grizzly bears. Huckleberries provide up to one-third of grizzly bears' sustenance. The plants prefer partial sun, average to dry conditions, and an acidic soil that is sandy or rocky.
Recipes that include Black Huckleberries. One is easiest, three is harder.