Farkleberry, also called sparkleberry, is a stiff-branched shrub or small crooked tree attaining a height of 20 feet. Some of the plants are tall, with rounded crowns, and others are somewhat flat-topped and have crooked, zigzag branches. Cut or burned stems will produce uncharacteristic straight shoots the first year with thinner, less glossy leaves.
Leaves are alternate, simple, sometimes evergreen, 1–3 inches long, about 1 inch wide, oval to broadest above the middle; the tip mostly rounded, or with a short, abrupt point; the base wedge-shaped; the margin entire or slightly toothed; leathery, glossy above; duller green and slightly hairy below; leaf stalk is almost absent, hairy.
Bark is dark brown or grayish brown, with fine grooves exposing the reddish inner bark; younger branches are reddish, with brown outer bark peeling off in flat, thin plates; the wood is hard, fine-grained, light reddish brown.
Twigs are slender, light brown to dark or reddish brown, spreading apart, smooth or hairy.
Flowers May–June, in loose clusters in the axils of leaves; flowers hanging, about ½ inch long, white or pinkish, bell-shaped, 5-lobed, curled at the tip; stamens 10, not extending beyond the flower. Flowers abundantly.
Fruits July–October, about ⅜ inch across, globe-shaped, black at maturity, shiny, persistent; the seeds are many, of various shapes, with flattened sides, golden brown, glossy, and deeply pitted. Fruits are edible and sweet but also rather dry and mealy-textured. The plant is rather sparsely fruited, with the fruits ripening throughout a long period.
Similar species: Four species of Vaccinium (blueberries) have been recorded as native or naturalized in Missouri. In addition to farkleberry, our other native blueberries are lowbush blueberry (V. pallidum) and deerberry (V. stamineum). The fourth, highbush or swamp blueberry (V. corymbosum), is apparently introduced; it’s uncommon in our state, known from a historical collection of a possibly native occurrence in Newton County, and a more recent, introduced occurrence in Ste. Genevieve County, where fruit plantings apparently escaped from cultivation. It’s an important fruit crop in the eastern and midwestern United States.
Another species, black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata), is in the same family as blueberries. Its leaves have numerous tiny, sticky, yellow resin dots (glands), at least on the undersurface, and its fruits (technically drupes, not berries) are leathery with 10 seedlike nutlets (whereas blueberries are berries with numerous seeds). It is critically imperiled in Missouri and known (for certain) only from a few sites in Montgomery and Perry counties.