Desserts,  Fruit,  Pie

Huckleberry Season

Not to brag, but here in the Northwest, we have an abundance of fresh fruit. From June through October, we are blessed with strawberries, raspberries, cherries, apricots, peaches, blackberries, pears, and apples. So far this summer, I’ve been the lucky recipient of our neighbor’s excess apricots. I’ve eaten my fill of fresh apricots, experimented with fruit leather, and canned three batches of jam. My father in-law’s blueberry bush produced a bumper crop, and we piled our cereal high every morning with fresh blueberries and Walla Walla’s famous Klicker strawberries. Peaches and blackberries are next. I’ve got my canning jars cleaned and ready.

Of all the summer fruits, huckleberries are our favorite. If you’ve only heard of huckleberries in the context of Huckleberry Finn or Huckleberry Hound, you’re missing out. Huckleberries are a Northwest delicacy that grows wild in the mountains, and they’re Idaho’s state fruit. Nothing is better than huckleberry pie. The combination of crisp pie crust, tart berry filling, and creamy ice cream is one of the joys of summer. Last year we were too busy to pick, and the year before we were routed by wildfire – literally. We saw the fire start on a nearby hill while we were on our way to our picking spot. Last weekend we headed to the mountains with some friends to try our luck again. It’s a few weeks early, but the berries were ready at lower elevations.

Huckleberries in their native habitat. These berries will be deep purple when they’re ripe.

The word “huckleberry” refers to several plants in two different genera that produce berries ranging in color from blue to red to purplish-black. Plants of the genus Gaylussacia are common east of the Mississippi River, but it do not grow in the West. Eastern historical references to huckleberries are typically from this genus. All of our western huckleberries are in the Vaccinium genus, a genus which also includes blueberries, bilberries, and cranberries. In the Pacific Northwest, Vaccinium membranaceum, the most commonly harvested variety, grows in subalpine or alpine environments. Forest fires are part of the natural ecological cycle in western forests, and huckleberries thrive in burned over areas where they can get ample sunshine.

Huckleberries have long been gathered and dried by tribes in the Northwest as part of their seasonal food supply. As American settlers moved into the region, they began picking berries to use in pies, jams, and to can for winter use. Most huckleberries were picked for personal use or sold locally until the 1930s when the huckleberry canning industry exploded. Families who had foraged for personal use found that they could supplement their incomes by selling huckleberries to local canneries. It’s estimated that over 250,000 gallons of huckleberries were harvested in 1932 alone. As canneries realized the value of huckleberries, they started hiring gangs of pickers rather than relying on freelancers. Pickers had to live in dusty, unsanitary camps. Picking was back-breaking work and paid little. Huckleberries grow low the ground, and the berries are fairly small. It takes a lot of them to fill a gallon. But since it was the Depression, canneries had no trouble finding people who were willing live and work under those conditions.

For comparison, here’s one of the huckleberries I picked this weekend. Our forests are dry, so the berries are typically this size. In other parts of the Northwest, berries can grow larger.

Commercial picking declined after the Depression for a variety of reasons. Huckleberry patches are located in remote, mountainous areas. Gas rationing during World War II made it difficult to justify the transportation costs of moving pickers and berries. Higher paying war industry jobs offered better wages to pickers, and parts of the forest were closed to berry harvest to accommodate timber sales. Commercial sales revived in the 1980s thanks to tourism. Huckleberries became synonymous with the Northwest and products such as candies, chocolates, barbecue sauces, and syrups started lining the shelves of gift shops for tourists eager for local souvenirs. Nostalgia played a role too. People who picked as children, or who remembered family stories about huckleberry trips, contributed to the popularity of huckleberry products. Huckleberry products are everywhere today. Restaurants feature huckleberry shakes, bakeries have huckleberry danishes, gas stations sell huckleberry chapstick. The popularity of huckleberries has driven up retail prices. This year, huckleberries at my local farm stand are selling for $90 a gallon, and they are in limited supply. Buyer beware – because of the high cost, some products substitute blueberries for huckleberries or use artificial flavorings. Huckleberries have a unique flavor, They are not as astringent as fresh cranberries, but they are much tarter than blueberries. You may pay a bit more for the real thing, but it’s worth it.

Huckleberries waiting to be turned into pie.

Huckleberry pie is our favorite way to use huckleberries. I’ve seen recipes that include additional seasoning such as vanilla, lemon juice, or spices. My husband’s grandmother always shredded an apple into her huckleberry pies. The apple added sweetness, extra pectin, and helped stretch the berries farther. I prefer to keep my pies simple: huckleberries, sugar, and a thickener, usually flour. Huckleberries are good enough to stand on their own without additional flavorings. The Practical American Cook Book, or, Practical and Scientific Cookery by a Housekeeper from 1855 offers a this recipe:

Huckleberry Pies
Put a good puff paste on to the pie plate with a rim as directed in making other pies. Fill the plate not quite even full. Heap the berries a little in the centre. And to each pie of common size add four large spoonfuls of sugar. Put a few thin slices of butter, and dredge over a very little flour before putting on the upper crust.

Huckleberry pie – it’s what’s for dinner.

For more information on the history of huckleberry harvests, see Rebecca T. Richards and Susan J. Alexander’s A Social History of Wild Huckleberry Harvesting in the Pacific Northwest (2006). Their report was prepared for the US Forest Service and is a very comprehensive account of huckleberry history.

If you’re planning to pick huckleberries, check regulations before you go. Some forests require a permit and most have limits on the amount that can be harvested. Some forest lands are reserved for tribal use, or are off limits to harvest for ecological reasons. Each unit of the Forest Service will have additional information on their website. Remember that bears like huckleberries. I’ve never seen a bear while picking, but it’s good to be cautious. Always leave some berries on the bushes for the animals. Picking is illegal in National Parks. Good luck and enjoy!

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