Recipe: Garden Huckleberry Preserves (a Nightshade Berry)

Recipe: Garden Huckleberry Preserves (a Nightshade Berry) thumbnail

This berry in the nightshade family just earned its way into the “must-grow” category in our summer garden.

Admittedly, we have a bit of an infatuation with nightshades. Each year, our garden is loaded with eggplants, tomatoes, tomatillos, ground cherries, cape gooseberries, wonderberries, and other berries that all belong in the Nightshade family (Solanaceae). Yes, tomatoes and eggplants are technically berries, not fruits or vegetables.

Photo: Ground cherries: the heirloom berry that originally set us off on our journey to discover (and share) delicious and unusual heirloom seed varieties. Each nightshade is uniquely delicious in their own regard, and really shouldn’t be compared. We usually make savory dishes out of our eggplants, but have also made an acorn flour, eggplant cake that was to die for. Most gardeners have plenty of recipes for tomatoes, but unless they’re familiar with Latin American cuisines, they may feel a little lost when it comes to preparing tomatillos (which are fantastic eaten raw, made into salsa verde or various cooked sauces). Ground cherries and cape gooseberries rarely make it back inside because we devour them on the spot. When it comes to garden huckleberries or the closely related wonderberries, many gardeners haven’t heard of them, or if they have, wouldn’t know what to do with them at harvest. The truth is that there is a huge range of nightshade berries that we either don’t know about or commonly grow here in the US, and we think there is enormous potential for many of these varieties to become popular with adventurous home gardeners and gourmet chefs. (Not to mention, the potential to breed “new heirloom” varieties.)

Wonderberries vs. Garden Huckleberries – Who Knows the Difference?

As it turns out, these names are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same plant and the berries are vastly different in both flavor and how they need to be prepared prior to consumption. Both plants likely have a common ancestor in Africa, as this fascinating report from the National Resources Institute at University of Greenwich details. And, no, they’re not genetically related to true huckleberries in the Ericaceae family (which we call “blueberries” here in the southeast).

Photo: Wonderberries – they produce smaller fruits growing on smaller plants compared to garden huckleberries, but they’re good eaten raw.

Wonderberries were bred by the famed botanist and plant breeder Luther Burbank, who introduced as many as 1,000 new cultivars of fruit trees, veggies, flowers and other plants during his remarkable career. Burbank supposedly bred wonderberries by stabilizing a hybrid between two other nightshades, S. villosum and S. guineense. As the story goes, he then sold the rights to wonderberries to another seed company, which then renamed them “sunberries.” Apparently, this set off a feud between the company and Burbank that spanned decades, leaving his reputation somewhat tarnished.

Until recently, wonderberries’ scientific name was Solanum × burbankii, in honor of Burbank. However, they’re now technically supposed to be called Solanum retroflexum. (We’re fans of Burbank, so we like to fight “the man” on this name change!)

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Further complicating matters: there is another plant in the nightshade family that also produces small, black fruits that sound very similar in description to wonderberries: garden huckleberries.

A nice harvest of garden huckleberries – this was a second harvest off of only four plants. The plants will continue to produce more berries throughout the summer.

The scientific name for garden huckleberries is often listed under Solanum scabrum or Solanum melanocerasum or Solanum nigrum, depending on which seed company or university extension you reference.

See why both the common and scientific names of wonderberries and huckleberries are often mixed up? Frankly, it’s very difficult to determine the correct scientific name for actual garden huckleberries. As best as we can tell from our research, it’s Solanum nigrum var. melanoserasum.

Comparing Wonderberries and Garden Huckleberries

Beautiful clusters of garden huckleberries. You only want to harvest the berries once they’ve turned fully black in color.

Growth Habit:

  • Wonderberries are smaller, less robust plants than garden huckleberries. We’d almost call them “dainty”. Their maximum height is about 2-3′. They get loaded with tiny green berries that turn black and soft when ripe. The ripe fruit is about the size of a pea. Each plant will produce 3-5 cups of fruit in a growing season.
  • Garden Huckleberries are larger, very robust plants. Apparently some subspecies in tropical African climates can even be short-lived perennials. Our plants grow to be about 3-4 tall, and have a similar growth habit as a large pepper, although they produce longer branches. All along the branches, clusters of berries form, turning from green to black when fully ripened. The mature berries are about the size of a big blueberry and have a tough, almost leathery skin. Each plant will produce upwards of a gallon (maybe more) of fruit in a growing season.


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  • Wonderberries offer a pleasant, sweet flavor when eaten raw right off the plant. The berries are very thin-skinned and will fall from the plant when overly ripe. They’re not quite as good as blueberries in flavor (in our opinion), but they’re definitely worth growing for fresh eating if you have the space in your garden. We’ve heard they make excellent pies and preserves as well, but we’ve never gathered enough to give it a try.
  • Garden huckleberries are not good eaten raw. They have almost no flavor and the skin is quite tough in comparison to a wonderberry. If raw fruit was the only option, they wouldn’t be worth growing. However, when cooked and sweetened, something magical happens. They can be made into beautiful deep purple-colored sauces, pies and preserves—and the flavor is out of this world delicious. If you could combine the best flavors from blueberries and grapes into a single fruit, that’s what garden hucklberry preserves taste like.

Be sure to remove the garden huckleberry stems before cooking. If you don’t have enough to make into a recipe right away, put them in the freezer and continue to harvest until you have enough berries. They’ll continue to produce well into the fall in our Agricultural Zone (7b).

Now that we’ve experienced how robust the plants are, how easy they are to grow, how many berries each bush produces, and the wonderful flavor their cooked berries have to offer, we’ve decided that garden huckleberries will be part of our summer garden every year hereafter. We’ve also decided that garden huckleberries deserve to make the cut and be included as a seed variety for GrowJourney members (our certified-organic Seeds of the Month Club).

Recipe: Garden Huckleberry Preserves

Here’s a simple garden huckleberry recipe to get you started in the right direction. Once you’ve had a chance to experience the primary flavors, you can start experimenting with future batches: pure vanilla extract and other flavors would likely add nice nuance and variation as well. Or you may decide that the grapey-blueberry deliciousness of straight garden huckleberries is all you want!

Yum! Garden hucklberry preserves on whole grain English muffin with local grass-fed butter.

Recipe: Garden Huckleberry Preserves (a Nightshade Berry)
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
Recipe type: Jams & Preserves
  • 2 pounds (roughly 8-10 cups) of ripe garden huckleberries
  • 3 cups of organic granulated cane sugar
  • 1 package of regular pectin
  • 1 lemon, zested and juiced (optional but citric acid is usually a good idea when preserving/canning)
  • ¼ cup water (used at the beginning of cooking to prevent fruit scald)
  1. Sterilize your canning jars and screw lids by boiling them for at least 15 minutes (*don't boil the flat lids that actually go on the top of the jar or you'll remove the gum/adhesive seal).
  2. Sort through your garden huckleberries to remove any stems. Then rinse them in a strainer.
  3. Put berries and water in a large pot over medium heat. The ¼ cup of water is added to prevent the fruit from scalding or sticking to the bottom of the pan. Bring slowly to a boil and allow to boil about 20 minutes to reduce water content.
  4. Add lemon zest/juice if you plan to use it.
  5. Boil for an additional 40 minutes. Many of the garden huckleberries will still have maintained their shape/form, so you might want to "mush" them a bit here. A potato masher works great.
  6. Add your pectin and bring back to a full rolling boil, stirring until all of the pectin has dissolved.
  7. Add sugar to the boiling garden huckleberries and stir until completely dissolved (only takes a few minutes). Remove from the heat.
  8. Ladle huckleberry preserves into your sterilized, hot jars. You'll want to leave room for expansion, about ¼" between the top of your preserves and your jar lid (called "head space"). Using a magnetized canning lid lifter, dip each lid into the boiling water for about 10-15 seconds. Place lid on top of jar, and screw on rings—not tight, you want them to have a bit of give.
  9. Boil jars with preserves in them for 15 minutes, making sure the water is at least 1-2" over the top of the lid so that air bubbles out of the jars.
  10. Remove jars from boiling water and place them on heat-proof countertop or stove top. Each jar should make a single "pop" sound shortly after being removed from boiling water, indicating that it has sealed. The lid will also indent downward. If a jar does not seal, place back in boiling water for 5 more minutes and repeat the process. Do NOT eat unsealed preserves. If you can't get your jars to seal or don't feel like going through the steps above, freeze them or stick them in the fridge.

That’s it! You’re on your way to enjoying one of the most delicious preserves you’ll ever eat.

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  • gracie mead-rickman

    I ran my garden huckleberries through my food mill, which did not work well, but I got about 2 cups of juice as well as purple, turning to green foam that I eventually scooped off and washed down the sink. now what do I do with this? I did not cook my berries first which may have helped them go through my mill better. the juice is a beautiful dark purple color but I’m not sure i can proceed to make jelly or if it needs special processing or what. Anyone done this before?

    • Aaron von Frank

      @gracie_mead_rickman:disqus unlike many other physalis fruits, garden huckleberries really need to be cooked before being palatable. We also prefer not to waste skins, seeds, etc – which are all loaded with good nutrition and dietary fiber, so perhaps try the preserve recipe above to see what you think (all parts of the fruit are used)? Or just make a tasty pancaked sauce with them if you don’t want to go through the canning steps. Once cooked and sweetened, garden huckleberries are absolutely delicious; they have a blueberry-grape flavor.

      • gracie mead-rickman

        Yes, about the cooking first, I learned that one too late for the first batch but live and learn….there are plenty more and I will make something tasty yet. TY for the encouragement. I’ll do jam next time!

      • gracie mead-rickman

        I tried again. Made jam and it was wonderful tasting and a gorgeous color. I also canned some pie filling.

  • Micaela

    Thanks for the information and the recipe! Can you tell me how many pints this makes?

    • Aaron von Frank

      Micaela: Embarrassingly, we didn’t record exactly how much we made and most of it has already been eaten. Our estimate is that it will make roughly 2 pints. It may be a little under this but prep enough jars for two pints just in case. Hope you enjoy!

  • Micaela

    Thanks, Aaron. 2 pints is about exactly what I got (well, I’m doing them in the smaller jam jars, but I’m guessing it’s about 2 pints’ worth). I did have a lot of scalding of the fruit, though. Are you supposed to add water during the long boiling process? Maybe I was cooking it at too high of a heat. Also, I realized after I was done cooking them that I hadn’t allowed the pectin (or maybe it was the sugar?) to fully dissolve. I’m hoping it will do so while boiling in the water bath. Have you ever had that happen before? I was wanting to save these for Christmas presents, so I don’t want to open a jar tonight just to check to make sure it dissolved. Well, at any rate–it did taste yummy!

    • Aaron

      Micaela, Sorry for my delayed response! Just realized we’re not getting alerts when comments are posted. Hopefully fixed now. Yes, we add water at first to prevent scalding. Once the fruit bursts, you shouldn’t have to add any more unless your heat is too high. To prevent your pectin from clumping, quickly whisk it in a small bit of warm water in a bowl or glass to dissolve it, THEN add it to your pot of jam. Sometimes if you add the powder right to the fruit mixture it will clump. Hope things turned out well!

  • Adventures in Self-Sufficiency

    I grew garden huckleberry for the first time this year, and am looking forward to trying this jam! Thanks for the recipe :)

    • Aaron

      Thanks for stopping by! Just subscribed to your blog. :) Hope you enjoy this recipe.

    • Aaron von Frank

      You’re welcome! Hope you enjoy yours as much as we’ve enjoyed ours.

  • Edward Snyder

    I have been making garden Huckleberry jelly for years. There are some steps I do prior to making the jelly. I parboil the fruit in baking soda water, then rinse several times to remove the baking soda. then I food process the berries. Lastly I strain them to take the seeds out. The resulting mix is then boiled, and strained. I repeat the process until the strained material no longer has the purple color to it. Then I boil the juice and remove any of the brown colored foam. The resulting juice mixed with lemon juice makes a very delicious jelly. It also can be mixed with another fruit such as blueberry or blackberry to make a delicious mixed berry jam. I also have saved the seeds of the largest fruit, and it has improved the size of the plants as well.