Huckleberries

The temperate rainforests of the pacific northwest are filled with blackberries. The thorny vines grow wild almost everywhere that they aren’t cut back including along ditch banks, fence lines and alongside roads. It is easy to find plenty of places to pick the rich, juicy fruit. You have to be careful of the sharp thorns, but once you get used to it, it is not difficult to fill your container with wonderful fruit. In general, there are a lot of berries around us whenever we visit. In addition to the blackberries, there are plenty of farms around that offer you pick berries at reasonable prices. With three children to help with the task, we can gather large quantities of fruit for the freezer in a half day. We’ve picked raspberries and blueberries on several occasions with our grandchildren. They have many productive strawberry plants in their yard that supply over a long season, so they don’t have to travel to harvest a lot of fruit.

Our son and daughter in law have a small chest freezer that is dedicated to fruit and it is filled to brimming with all kinds of berries. They continue to develop their garden and have planted a lot of berries and the raspberry and blueberry production will increase in years to come.

There is a berry, however, that I have long prized over all of the others. Huckleberries are the state fruit of Idaho, a place where we lived for a decade, but I remember them from my childhood as the product of the high country. Technically they are a sub-alpine plant, found on the high slopes, but not the top of mountains. They can be found in bogs or damp places as well as in the undergrowth of the large trees of the pacific northwest. People can be very protective of their huckleberry patches and you have to be a bit careful if you want to pick them. Most importantly, the bears love the huckleberries and responsible pickers always keep an eye out for their competition and have a safe exit planned when picking the berries.

Huckleberries have become a favorite of tourists. As we have traveled from South Dakota to Washington and/or Oregon for many years, we have our favorite places to stop for a huckleberry milkshake and know where to pick up huckleberry preserves and jam. We’ve also, on occasion, purchased a pint or quart of frozen huckleberries. We know that the price is high, but they can go a long way as special treats added to pancakes and used as topping for ice cream.

After the eruption of Mount St. Helens in the spring of 1980, one of the first plants to reappear were huckleberries. Apparently the volcanic soil was just right for the lush berries. The common folklore is that the only reliable source of huckleberries is to hike in the mountains. It doesn’t hurt to have a lot of local knowledge about the best places to go and pick the fruit.

I was told that huckleberries don’t do well in gardens. The plants are difficult to cultivate and though many people have tried to transplant huckleberries from the mountains to their home gardens, they don’t do well. Huckleberries need acidic soil and the right amount of shade and water and growing them is a difficult challenge. They love volcanic soil and grow as high as 10,000 feet and above.

However, our daughter-in-law has found huckleberry plants that are thriving in her garden. They aren’t quite the same as the ones with which I am familiar with from hiking in the mountains, but they are very close. Her plants aren’t as thick and don’t have as many leaves as we see in the high country, but they are producing more berries than we can pick. The berries are tiny and it takes time to pick them, but I manage to pick a couple of cups each day, choosing times when the plants are in the shade. Their garden isn’t in the high country - quite the opposite. It is in the greater Skagit basin, which is an area that used to be flooded by the river years ago. The Skagit comes directly from the high country of the North Cascade Mountains and carries lots of rock dust from the high country including, I assume, plenty of volcanic soil. But their home is only a few miles from the ocean at about 180 feet above sea level, far from the altitude of the cascade peaks that we can see in the distance. Still, there are these huckleberry plants growing in their garden.

Our grandchildren all love fruit and they are used to being able to pick strawberries and blackberries whenever they want a snack. They’ve learned to judge when the berries are the sweetest and pick the ripe fruit at will. Their grandpa also enjoys the bounty of the garden, but my special corner is where the huckleberries grow. The rest of the family isn’t too fond of the huckleberries and I’ve noticed that they haven’t been picking them to preserve. However, I’ve managed to put aside a few of them in our freezer in the camper and I’ll be able to store them in our son’s freezer until we are able to get our household moved. I have visions of perhaps one day having a few of the plants in my back yard once we get settled.

Each place that we have lived has had its own special local foods. The pheasants and buffalo in our freezer at home are easy for us to obtain. Even though I am not a hunter, I have friends who hunt and who make regular gifts of pheasants to us. Rapid City has a couple of places to buy fresh buffalo meat and we often have a supply in our freezer. The lakes and streams of the hills produce fish and we enjoy the food of our region. Now that we are considering a move, we will need to learn local sources for food and will be close enough to the ocean to have access to seafood. I’m looking forward to learning about local foods.

And I’m enjoying the huckleberries right out the door of the camper. I’m probably getting spoiled, but i do like huckleberry pancakes for breakfast.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!