Huckleberries: Yum!

Nature’s Bounty: Wild Berries

Growing up in a suburb of Seattle, picking wild berries in summertime was a normal childhood activity. Mostly we picked blackberries, which grow everywhere in western Washington, so we only had walk to the edges of the neighborhood or a nearby vacant lot to find them. If the family went camping at higher elevations in other parts of the state, though, we might be lucky enough to find some huckleberries. If we had plenty of berries – blackberries or huckleberries – a special treat was adding them for flavoring to homemade ice cream.

Ripe huckleberries found in the Payette National Forest on July 21, 2019.

Huckleberries – Everyone’s Favorite Wild Berry

More than twelve species of huckleberries are found throughout Pacific Northwest forests in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. They grow in the underbrush of sub-alpine forests – generally thriving in areas dominated by fir and pine trees. Many forest inhabitants rely on huckleberry plants, including bears, dear, elk, coyotes, small mammals and many birds. The huckleberry shrub grows in a variety of habitats, including mid-alpine regions up to 11,500 feet, on mountain slopes, in forests, or in lake basins.

Huckleberries are relatives of both blueberries and cranberries. Smaller and more flavorful than the blueberry, without the tartness of the cranberry, the juicy huckleberry, if not eaten right off the bush, needs to be quickly dried, processed or frozen to keep. Because of their popularity and scarcity, since the early 1900s people have tried, and failed, to domesticate the huckleberry plant. Yet it is incredibly resilient in its natural habitat. According to the Wikipedia page on huckleberries, “Huckleberry was one of the few plant species to survive on the slopes of Mount St. Helens when the volcano erupted in 1980, and existed as a prominent mountain-slope bush in 2017.”

dogs eating huckleberries
Finn and Conall foraging for huckleberries in the Payette National Forest, July 25, 2019.

I rather like that it takes some effort to find huckleberries. Somehow that makes it all the more thrilling to find them when they’re ripe and enjoy their sweet flavor as you pop them in your mouth. Upon moving to Idaho in 2005 and exploring the trails of the Payette National Forest with the girls, I was delighted to learn that huckleberries grow abundantly here. Many of the trails I consider favorites have huckleberry shrubs growing right beside them, no effort required to harvest, just good timing. When the berries are past ripe at 4,000 feet, they’re ripening at 5,000, so we simply go higher. Some years are better than others, of course, and the window of ripeness is small in a given area, but having so much elevation variation lengthens the season.

The huckleberry was designated Idaho’s official state fruit in 2000. Many area business, place and trail names include “Huckleberry” and huckleberry ice cream and milkshakes are favorites for locals and visitors alike.

Huckleberry-loving Dogs

It wasn’t until I became a trail runner, seeking mountain trails, that I enjoyed picking and eating huckleberries every summer. One summer in the early 2000s, stopping during a run to pick berries for myself, my Malamute Meadow approached, curious what I was eating, wondering if she might like some. I gave her one of the tiny berries. She gently took it from my fingertips and held it in her mouth. I thought she was going to spit it out, but instead, she looked at me as if to say, Good stuff. Can I have more? I picked several more berries for her. She was disappointed when I stopped. I offered a berry to her sister Maia, who took a sniff and turned her head away, unwilling to even taste it.

dog eating huckleberries
Finn displaying his berry picking technique. We’re early; only a few of the berries are ripe.

The next summer, when the girls and I came to an area of trail with huckleberry shrubs, I again stopped to pick some. Meadow tried to steal them from my hand before I could eat them, becoming rather pushy. She remembered, and was demanding I share. I gave her most of what I picked. Huckleberries are labor intensive; the small, individual berries hide among the shrub’s leaves, requiring some time and effort to pick even a handful. Tired of Meadow begging for the berries (and not getting many for myself), I decided to teach her how to pick her own. Taking hold of a branch, I held back the leaves with both hands to make the berry obvious, then put it near her nose. Meadow plucked the berry off the plant, using her lips and tiny front teeth, just like a bear. In no time, she became an expert berry picker. Eventually Maia decided she’d like to eat a few berries, too, but she always insisted I pick them for her; she never picked her own.

When I added Finn to our pack, he watched the girls eat huckleberries during runs or walks in the forest, but when I offered him one, he turned his nose, as Maia did at first. I would try several more times over the years, but Finn never showed any interest.

Conall, however, was an early adopter. In 2016, the summer he was a year old and accompanying me and Finn on trail runs, I showed him huckleberry shrubs alongside a trail. He was unimpressed; just another plant to him. I picked a few berries and offered them to him. He cautiously ate them. It was like a light bulb went on in his head. Wow! More, please! Just like Meadow, he loved them but expected me to pick them for him. I helped him to pick his own, the same way I taught Meadow, and he quickly got the gist of it.

picking huckleberries
Conall found this patch of huckleberry shrubs, allowing Finn and me to enjoy as well.

The next summer, Conall took his love of huckleberries to a higher level. He started suddenly jumping off the trail into the forest undergrowth, leaving me puzzled what he was about until noticing he was sniffing among…huckleberry shrubs. Often Conall was too early; the berries were still green or just starting to turn purple. But his nose never erred; he always found the shrubs, often in places I wouldn’t have noticed them. If the berries were ripe, Conall and I stopped and ate several. Finn, bored waiting for us, finally began showing some interest. Hmm. If Conall likes the, maybe they’re okay? I offered Finn a berry and this time he took it. I offered another, and he took that one as well. Another light bulb moment occurred, and without any prompting from me, Finn began harvesting his own berries right alongside Conall with the same level of eagerness.

Now both boys love huckleberries, and are pretty good pickers although sometimes they have to spit out a leaf or two. I love seeing a wonderful look of bliss on their faces as they move through the shrubs, picking and eating the ripe berries. Watching them, I imagine this is how bears must feel when they’re eating berries.

picking huckleberries
Even while enjoying huckleberries, Conall is alert to what’s around us, always listening and looking, making sure we’re safe.

It’s hard to improve on a mountain trail run that takes one through forests, across streams, over high passes and past alpine lakes, but adding ripe huckleberries for a mid-run snack – for me and for the dogs – makes any run epic.

Blackberries, A History

Thinking about huckleberries, researching them, got me wondering about blackberries as well. They have an interesting backstory, at least on the West Coast.

Turns out that what’s now called the Himalayan blackberry, the one most commonly seen around Seattle, is not native to the Pacific Coast. They were imported by a guy named Luther Burbank who in the late 19th century had an interest in creating new plants to help give the growing middle classes in cities the fruits and vegetables they wanted. He started selling the blackberry seeds he obtained from India (thus the name Himalayan) in 1894, and by the early 1900s, the blackberry bushes were thriving, especially in moist climate of Seattle and the Puget Sound area.

blackberries
Blackberries.

In fact, these blackberries thrive so well – spreading by seeds dispersed by birds as well a vine tip sprouting in the soil nearby – that they crowd out native plants and animals. Around Seattle they are considered a noxious weed. They are almost indestructible. Their thick, strong canes, covered with sharp thorns and growing over and around each other in a tangle as high as five or six feet, form impenetrable barriers. The main cane can grow 15 feet, with trailing canes as long as 40 feet. I’ve seen people bring in backhoes to get rid of them, all other methods having failed.

blackberry shrubs
Impenetrable blackberry bushes.

But their berries? Delicious, especially on top of vanilla ice cream. They’re big and easy to pick as long as you don’t try reaching too far into the bush, encountering thorns. You do want to inspect each berry before popping one in your mouth, though, because they often harbor tiny bugs.

I miss being able to pick and eat blackberries on summertime trail runs like I did while living near Seattle. We don’t have blackberries growing in the Payette. But we do have plenty of huckleberries. I love huckleberries. So do my dogs.

Huckleberries hold a place in archaic American English slang. The phrase “a huckleberry over my persimmon” was used to mean “a bit beyond my abilities.” “I’m your huckleberry” is a way of saying that one is just the right person for a given job.

Wikipedia

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