The cynamoka (Vaccinium ovatum), also known as evergreen huckleberry, winter huckleberry and California huckleberry, is an evergreen shrub in the Ericaceae family that grows about 2.5 meters (8 feet) high.
Cynamoka grows on the west side of the Cascade Range from British Columbia to California, mainly on lower Vancouver Island and in the coastal areas of the lower mainland; it is very common in secondary forests, especially along forest edges and in open areas.
The leaves are glossy, alternate and oval, about 2 to 3 centimeters (1 inch) long and 1 centimeter (2/5 inch) wide, with finely serrated edges. In spring, the plant has a reddish coloration, but later turns dark green. Being evergreen, it does not lose its leaves in winter. The bell-shaped flowers are pinkish-white and hang below the leaves in long clusters, attracting hummingbirds, butterflies and other pollinators. During the summer the plant produces black, round, edible berries about 1 cm (2/5 inch) in diameter, which can remain on the branches until mid-winter. They are eaten by birds and mammals in the autumn.
The plant prefers exposure to sunlight, but also grows well in the shady undergrowth. It particularly thrives in acidic soils.
The berries ripen late in the summer and can sometimes even be harvested throughout the winter, often making them the only local fruit growing at that time.
The berries taste similar to blueberries, but sweeter and more intense, and can be eaten raw, though they are often used in jams and jellies. The native Nlaka’pamux Salish and Nuu-chah-nuth people of Vancouver Island and the west coast have traditionally harvested the berries, consuming them fresh or preserving them by sun-drying or smoking. They were then partially crushed, pressed and wrapped in leaves or bark. The leaves can also be dried and used for infusions.
Cynamoka berries are also used for medicinal purposes. Infusions made from the leaves were used to lower blood sugar levels, making them potentially effective against diabetes. They are also believed to stimulate the appetite and have astringent and antiseptic qualities, useful for treating urinary disorders.