Along the Way: The Box Huckleberry

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Monument marking the area as a Historic Landmark – note the low-lying bushes in the background – they’re box huckleberry shrubs

Having only an article ripped from an old issue of The Pennsylvania Game News and a vague set of directions found online, I explored countless roads south of New Bloomfield in search of a unique piece of Pennsylvania’s landscape. Although I enjoyed the beauty of the region, I wish I could say that my first attempt to discover the Hoverter and Sholl Box Huckleberry Natural Area was a success, but it wasn’t. To make things worse, I would later discover I had driven past the spot twice in my search, but had failed to see the sign for the area hidden on the hillside above the narrow back road.

A year later,armed with better directions, I made a second trip into the region in search of the natural area. This trip I had successfully discovered the Hoverter and Sholl Box Huckleberry Natural Area, a hidden piece of the state’s natural history. A part of the Tuscarora State Forest, this is the smallest natural area in Pennsylvania, covering ten acres on a hillside just south of New Bloomfield.

Parking along the edge of the road, I prepared to explore the natural area. I followed the pine needle-covered trail that wrapped around the hill, enjoying the silence of this location. As I walked, I studied the hillside, covered in low-growing – roughly a foot high – shrubs that claimed the spot as its home. The colony is the box huckleberry, a member of the Ericaceae family, which also includes the cranberry, blueberry, and rhododendron. The box huckleberry shares many characteristics with its more commonly known cousin, the blueberry.

Classified as threatened in Pennsylvania, the box huckleberry is one of the oldest, if not the oldest plants in the world. The colony that covers the hillside south of New Bloomfield is estimated to be 1,300 years old, if not older.

The box huckleberry was first recorded as being discovered in 1796 by French naturalist Andre Michaux, who was sent by the king and queen of France to obtain plants for the Royal Gardens. He discovered a colony near Winchester, Virginia. His discovery was lost and the box huckleberry wouldn’t be discovered again until 1846. Dickinson College professor Spencer Fullerton Baird rediscovered the box huckleberry growing in the hills north of Carlisle. Baird would report his find to botanist Asa Gray who confirmed this was the lost plant known as the box huckleberry. Note: Michaux State Forest in southern Pennsylvania is named in honor of Andre Michaux. 

In 1919, another major discovery was made about the box huckleberry plant. Studies by Dr. Frederick V. Coville proved that this growth was one large plant that had slowly spread out, six inches at a time, over the past thousand years. The box huckleberry is self-sterile; that is, the seeds it normally produces will not create a new plant. Fertile seeds are produced only when the flowers are cross-fertilized with pollen from a different colony. With colonies being separated by long distances, the box huckleberry reproduces by sending out rhizomes, from which new plants are formed. These new shrubs are clones of the original.

In 1920, Harvey Ward discovered another growth about ten miles from the Hoverter and Sholl Box Huckleberry Natural Area, overlooking the Juniata River. Ward determined this colony, which covered more than one hundred acres, was over 13,000 years old. Sadly this growth was almost completely destroyed by the construction of Route 22/322, but portions of it survived due to its location on private property.

Note: Many sources state that the colony destroyed by 22/322 was north of Duncannon along Losh Run. However, Losh Run is on the opposite side of the Juniata River from Route 22/322. I’m not sure why Losh Run was identified as the location, but I have been able to verify this colony was located near the present-day Watts exit. I believe the early articles should have read “along the Juniata, across the river from Losh Run” but instead was transformed into “along the Juniata River at Losh Run.” The error was never corrected when it was repeated.

While I originally knew of these two growths in Perry County, a fact sheet put out by the state of Pennsylvania adds two more colonies of box huckleberry within the borders. A colony existed in Lebanon County, but the last time it was verified was in the 1930s. I have not been able to locate any other information about this colony.

The map on the fact sheet also shows that a colony exists in Bedford County and it is located on private property.

The box huckleberry does not just exist in Pennsylvania. Colonies of the box huckleberry exist in seven other states: Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina, which was discovered in 2004 near Durham, North Carolina.

In 1967, the hillside south of New Bloomfield became a Natural Landmark under the U.S. Department of the Interior. There is a quarter mile trail around the natural area that is an easy and quiet walk. Upon entering the area, take a left at the split (where the information board is located) and after a brief walk, you will arrive at the stone marker proclaiming the area as a Natural Landmark. From there, the trail continues up the hillside and circles back to the information board. Other stations exist along the trail explaining the plants seen along the way. I was surprised that, as this area is close to a major route, it seemed so silent as I walked along the path. After enjoying my time there, I knew it was time to let this plant continue it’s quiet existence and I headed onward, excited at seeing the oldest living thing within the borders of our state.

Note: If you decide to visit, there is little parking available. There is a lot across the road from the trail’s head, but it appears to be privately owned. I parked along the berm and put my four-ways on while exploring the area.

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