Wild Pacific Northwest Huckleberries

Discover the history of the Pacific Northwest’s huckleberry, it's delicious sweet-tart taste, and where to forage for them.

| June 2018

  • Northwestern Montana is known for its huckleberries, as are Washington and Oregon.
    Photo by Peter Stevens
  • The bushes can be low, or grow up to 6 or 7 feet tall. Some people spot huckleberries on the side of a road.
    Photo by Laurel F.
  • “The Fruit Forager’s Companion,” by Sara Bir encourages readers to embrace the magic of hunting for fruit.
    Cover courtesy Chelsea Green Publishing

The Fruit Forager's Companion(Chelsea Green, 2018), by Sara Bir is a guide devoted to the secret, sweet bounty outside our front doors and ripe for the taking from familiar apples and oranges to the lesser-known pawspaws and mayhaws. Bir a seasoned chef, gardener, and forager, primes readers on foraging basics, demonstrates gathering and preservation techniques while transforming unloved and forgotten fruit into an array of delightful dishes.

Vaccinium spp.Ericaceae familyThroughout Canada; northern and western US

Huckleberries are wild through and through, and a certain type of person with a fierce independent streak and a love of self-sufficiency sees huckleberries as an emblem of a western way of life. Northwestern Montana is known for its huckleberries, as are Washington and Oregon. It’s the state fruit of Idaho. Species grow all the way up the Pacific Coast to Alaska.

Everyone has heard of huckleberries, but relatively few actually get to taste them. They are true foragers’ delights, and it is unwise to describe them assimilar to blueberries around a huckleberry hound, because you will get an earful. Huckleberries have a more prominent “belly button” on their blossom ends than blueberries do. While blueberries can grow in clusters of several berries, huckleberries stud branches one by one, asking your fingers to be more nimble. And most important, huckleberries taste like huckleberries: intense, juicy, addictive.

The huckleberry hunt can get competitive, but there is a precedent for working things out. Huckleberries were at the heart of a treaty between the Yakima Nation and the US National Forest Service. The contested huckleberries were in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, about 100 miles (160 km) south of Seattle. The Yakima have foraged for huckleberries on the land for generations — to them, the annual picking and preserving of berries is a culturally, socially, and spiritually significant event — but during the Great Depression, outsiders began showing up and stripping the berries, too. In 1932 forest supervisor J. R. Burkhardt met with council members and eventually set aside 2,800 acres (1,135 ha) for tribal use during huckleberry season. The agreement was bound with a handshake and eventually written into the forest’s management plan. It is still in effect today, though reputedly some non–Native Americans choose not to heed the signs posted and harvest huckleberries freely.

Speaking of national forests, huckleberries and hiking go hand in hand. While out on unrelated mountain or meadow adventures, you can scout out promising spots to return to. Serious pickers think nothing of going to higher elevations to get the best ones. The deeper the season, the higher you go.

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