One of my favorite Fourth of July memories is eating my great-aunt Martha’s huckleberry pie when I was a kid. We’d gather at the family campground by a little river, and eat California delicacies like abalone, venison, and this wonderful pie. Huckleberries are a wild-tasting fruit, tart but sweet. They taste of pine forest and long days with picking buckets. The little fruits hold their texture even when cooked, they pop in your mouth with a satisfying burst: perfect when blended with sugar and a flaky crust.
Huckleberries (Vaccinium ovatum) grow all along the west coast – from Canada to Alaska – but not many people cook with them often since they are so small that picking enough for a pie takes a long time. Look for them in forests and clearings, often on slopes. The shrubs are attractive, with dense shiny foliage of small oval leaves. White lantern-shaped flowers give rise to small, round, dark purple fruit that looks like a small blueberry.
It’s buckeye season – one of my favorite stages of spring. These spreading trees with their tall, pinkish-white spires of flowers can be seen along roadsides, streamsides, in mixed woodlands and even at the edge of pebbly beaches on Tomales Bay. I’ve seen Aesculus californica growing so close to the water that the lower branches were draped with streamers of dried eelgrass.
This lovely tree is unique to California, and can be found across much of the state. It has loads of character, with knobby, gnarled trunks and wide palmately compound leaves. It leafs out during the winter, offering cool shade on hot days into the early summer, and then it goes dormant. In the fall it drops beautiful shiny chestnut-colored nuts (ok, actually they are “capsules” since the hard exterior contains several seeds). I like to gather them and use them for decoration. But don’t eat any! They are toxic, known to depress the nervous system, cause abortions in cattle and be toxic to bees. Native Americans would use extract of the seed topically (for hermerrhoids?!). In tough times the seeds were sometimes eaten (after careful preparation to leach the poison out). Buckeye also provided food in a different way: pouring a ground-up powder of the seed into a stream would stupify fish for easier catching!