One of the best-kept secrets of the northwestern United States is the delicious mountain huckleberry. While it’s no secret that the huckleberry is delicious and even the state fruit of Idaho, try asking any local where they pick their berries! This delicious fruit is native to colder, mountainous regions and the mountains of Coeur d’Alene are home some of the best huckleberries in the region. These dark purple berries are a great source of nutrition and bloom ever year from August to late September. Visitors to northern Idaho during this time of year will witness one of America’s greatest berry seasons, but hurry! The season is over before you know it and you might have to wait another year.
It is abundantly clear— Idahoans love their huckleberries and the flavor is in high demand throughout the state. This fruit is used in jams, jellies, candies, pie, pancakes, and even barbeque sauce! The scent is even used in shampoos and soap. You might begin to ask yourself “how did this berry become so popular?” The secret lies in the fact that huckleberries have never been successfully grown on a commercial farm. The plant has proven itself difficult to cultivate since transplanting the roots won’t grow a new plant. The only way to start your own patch is through seeds, but it can take years for a bush to yield fruit. Simply put, Idahoans know that they have something special and are proud of it. The ideal combination of Idaho’s rich volcanic soil and high altitude make it an ideal habitat for this unique berry. Every winter, a thick blanket of snow keeps these bushes healthy and insulated from the subzero temperatures of Idaho winters. These factors create an environment in which the huckleberry thrives.
Idaho’s fondness for this rare fruit also stems from the fact that there are many different species of huckleberry, but Idaho’s seem to be the best. Eastern Washington has a sparse variant with small, red, sour berries while the blue variant are not nearly as sweet as the darker ones. The species of huckleberry that is most popular in the state is the black or thin-leaved huckleberry. These bushes can grow anywhere from one to six feet tall and can take up to fifteen years to mature. Since these berries take so long to mature, the best thing you can do is take care of the patches you find. Before Europeans ever visited Idaho, Native Americans would cultivate large patches of wild huckleberries by burning the surrounding forest to give them more room to grow but many locals have started clearing sections of trees around their favorite gathering spots to encourage a larger crop. This helps the local wildlife because animals also rely on huckleberry patches to put on weight during the fall. It is not a rare occurrence to take a trip to a secluded huckleberry patch and spot some of the local Idaho wildlife. Visitors to these berry patches might see a wide variety of animals including elk, foxes, birds, and even bears!
Despite the stubbornness of this wild plant, some attempts at domestication have begun to grow fruit. In 2016, a farmer named Joe Culbreth from northern Idaho began to see bunches of berries in a huckleberry bush he had planted six years previously. The berries were immature and green, but he is convinced that it is a good sign his farm might be producing a healthy crop within a few years. It does not seem too far-fetched to think that huckleberries could be a widely planted crop with this farmer’s recent success, especially once you learn that the blueberry is a close cousin to this fruit and was not domesticated until 1916! That’s right folks, that delicious berry that you can find in every grocery store nationwide has only become common in the last 102 years.
Will future generations be able to fall in love with huckleberries just as easily as everyone from Idaho? Mr. Culbreth’s work on the domestication of this plant stems from his love of huckleberries and the desire to do something different, even going so far as to approach the University of Idaho and purchase a sapling used in their own huckleberry domestication research. His bushes are still growing but he hasn’t quite cracked the secret of this berry yet. Despite this, he is still known in the area as “Huckleberry Joe” and you can guarantee there will be hundreds of people lining up as soon as his first crop is ready for the harvest. His work is still giving many hope that this berry will become more popular because there will always be a high demand in Idaho for great huckleberry recipes.
If you ever get the chance to try something flavored with huckleberry, do it! This unique fruit is very sweet with the slightest hint of tartness when eaten raw but retains only its sweetness when cooked. In Idaho, they are frequently substituted into many recipes that call for blueberries because huckleberries are much sweeter. They are also a healthier substitute in foods because their natural sweetness allows you to reduce the amount of sugar you would normally add to the recipe. This healthy berry is also full of antioxidants and vitamin C, which will keep your immune system strong and stay healthier. They have also been associated with protecting against a myriad of health problems including glaucoma, muscular degeneration, ulcers, and heart disease.
If you search hard enough, you might be able to find someone willing to part with their treasure trove of frozen huckleberries at this time of year… for a price. Since these berries are only around for a little over a month during the early fall, many locals will gather as many as they can and freeze them, ensuring a steady supply of this superfood year-round. If you can manage to part with some of your precious stash, you will begin to understand why they are so highly sought after. What are you waiting for? Go out and discover your new favorite fruit!