In the shadowy spaces and the sunny clearings of high Northwest forests, the huckleberry waits for an eager human or bear in the late summer. Imbued with an intense sweet-sour flavor, this coveted wild treat might peek out from its glossy leaves in a jealously-protected secret location, but it will be sought and often found.
Seekers of the huckleberry—whether they are Native Americans, more recent residents of the area, or the berry-loving grizzly and black bears—hunt incessantly for the deep purple to red fruit. Even if they aren’t pickers, any Northwesterner or visitor would still find it hard to miss the huckleberry jams, shakes, pies, and fresh berries that, for many of us, taste of August and September.
The berries can take some gathering effort, growing best between 3,000 and 7,000 feet, often on slopes. An adult can pick maybe three gallons a day. No one knows the full reach of huckleberries, but in the late 1970s, Forest Service biologist Don Minore estimated as many as 100,000 productive acres in Washington and Oregon alone.
One can’t talk about huckleberries without wading into a debate about its name and botanical connections. There is an East Coast huckleberry and a European version, but they’re quite different from the huckleberry of the West, which is a cousin of the blueberry. All Western huckleberries are in the genus Vaccinium, a broad group representing berries around the world from the cranberry to the “bilberry” of the British Isles, all part of the heather family.
From there, however, things get contentious. Although they are closely related to cultivated and wild blueberries, the flavors of huckleberries tend to be much stronger. They also vary considerably according to climate and soil; a Pacific coast huckleberry will be quite different from a Rocky Mountain version.
No matter where they spring up, huckleberries have been woven into the social and ecological tapestry of the Northwest for an age. The Salish, the Yakama, and most other tribes gathered huckleberries as a crucial part of their diet and their spiritual lives. Typically women and children picked them and returned to camps with baskets full of their bounty. Some tribes used fire, both natural and human-made, as a tool to clear areas and allow successional plants like huckleberries to thrive. Yakama elder Hazel Miller told an historian that the old people said, “God told people to burn the forest and huckleberries would grow.”
The tribes consumed fresh berries and dried many more in the sun for winter sustenance. Sometimes they would mix the dried huckleberries with bitterroot in stew, possibly with venison, for feasts in the colder times of the year.
While Native Americans typically dried them or made cakes of crushed berries, early white settlers started to preserve huckleberries through canning, which then transformed harvesting into a bigger commercial industry. In the Great Depression, the decent price of huckleberries and large number of unemployed people led to the growth of large camps of pickers. They picked or raked alongside Native tribes, and huckleberry gathering became one of the main uses of national forests. A commercial industry grew and then declined after World War II, eventually developing into processed foods like chocolates and jams.
Huckleberries remain a prominent non-forestry use of the woods, although the “commercial” part has grown complex, says Matt Carroll, a Washington State University rural sociology professor who examined huckleberry picking and community in northeast Washington.
“Around the Colville Forest, it’s obvious huckleberries are part of the social fabric and culture. Everyone knows about berries,” he says.
Carroll and his fellow researchers divided huckleberry pickers into four groups: full-time commercial, Native harvesters, recreational or household gatherers, and income supplementers. While these groups often blurred, the people who sell to boost income intrigued Carroll the most since they didn’t consider themselves commercial.
Much of huckleberry mystique comes from the hard labor in the secret places of the woods, since the fruit has resisted attempts at cultivation. That could change with promising research from Amit Dhingra, horticulture professor in WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences, and his colleagues. They cloned Vaccinium membranaceum, and they’re now growing in WSU greenhouses.
No matter how they are gathered, and hopefully when they’re cultivated, huckleberries will deliver that powerful punch of flavor, a taste of the wild that reminds us of the forest. That intensity multiplies in jams, jellies, and syrups. There’s not much to compare to the explosion of berryness in huckleberry pancakes with huckleberry syrup.
Canning and other methods of preserving work well, just be sure to follow WSU Extension’s guidelines: Start with fresh, ripe huckleberries.
While the huckleberry lends itself to many dishes, often the most satisfying is fresh off the bush, perhaps scattered on a bowl of Ferdinand’s vanilla ice cream on a hot Northwest summer night.
Types of Huckleberries
Huckleberry species are part of the Vaccinium genus (which also includes the cranberry, blueberry, bilberry, and lingonberry) as well as the Gaylussacia genus. Whereas blueberries have been domesticated and hybridized to produce larger berries, the huckleberry has only a few domesticated varieties (e.g. Vaccinium ovata ‘Thunderbird’) but remain mostly in wild form. Huckleberries found growing wild in Washington state include:
Dwarf huckleberry (Vaccinium caespitosum, also known as dwarf blueberry, dwarf bilberry, dwarf whortleberry) Found in most of western United States, Great Lakes, New England, and Canada. Small, bright blue berries with excellent flavor. Used by Native Americans but not commercial pickers. Adaptable to habitats.
Cascade huckleberry (Vaccinium deliciosum, also known as Cascade bilberry, blue huckleberry) Found in most of western United States, Great Lakes, New England, and Canada in small, scattered populations. Can form large heaths. Large, bright blue powdery berries with excellent flavor. Popular with commercial pickers.
Mountain huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum, also known as mountain bilberry, black huckleberry, tall huckleberry, big huckleberry, thinleaf huckleberry, globe huckleberry, Montana huckleberry) Berries are red, blue, purple, black, and even white, and have good to excellent flavor. Idaho’s state fruit. The most widely harvested western huckleberry.
Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus, also known as dwarf bilberry, dwarf huckleberry, whortleberry) Found in western United States (except California) and western Canada. Also found in Europe and Asia where popular for culinary and medicinal uses. Can form large, dominant stands. Not harvested commercially presently in the United States.
Oval-leaved bilberry (Vaccinium ovalifolium, also known as oval-leaved blueberry, Alaska blueberry, highbush blueberry) Found in the Pacific Northwest through Montana and South Dakota, Great Lakes, western and eastern Canada, and parts of Europe and Asia. The berries are powdery blue with a mild to sour flavor. May have commerical potential for extracts and supplements.
Evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum, also known as evergreen shot or blackwinter huckleberry) Found in the Pacific Coast states and British Columbia, often in dense stands. The black berries ripen late with low yields. The serrated leaves are commercially valuable for floral arrangements.
Red huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium, also known as red bilberry) Found in the Pacific Coast states and British Columbia. Red, waxy berries—which tend to be sour—were popular in jams and preserves of all coastal tribes. Berries can hang on the branches until early winter. Limited commercial value.
Alpine bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum, also known as bilberry, bog bilberry, tundra bilberry) Found in most of western United States, Great Lakes, New England, Canada, northern Europe, and Asia. Single or clusters of two or three powdery blue berries with good flavor but low yields. Not a commercially important crop here in North America but is harvested elsewhere.
Sources Wild Huckleberry Association and USDA
On the web
Preserving Berries (PDF, WSU Extension)