Continuation of the interview with Dr Danny Barney on the western huckleberry:
5. Why did you choose to pursue domesticating the huckleberry and why did you stop?
- Being a native of Idaho, I grew up picking huckleberries in late summer and autumn, as did my father, grandfather, and their grandfathers. The fruit is a significant part of community and family culture in some parts of western North America. When I returned to Idaho as a professor of horticulture and small fruit specialist in 1988, I was naturally inclined to work with the berries and to see if they could be cultivated.
- Western huckleberries and bilberries have a long history of trade use, predating European settlers by centuries. Between the beginning of the twentieth century and World War II, the crops were heavily harvested commercially. Although the industry died out with the creation of technology and high-paying jobs following the war, it was reborn again in the 1980s, largely due to ecotourism and the gift trade.
- Unfortunately, demand for the flavorful fruits far outstripped supplies, leading to overharvest and serious damage to some easily-accessible stands. Huckleberry patches that my family had picked from for a century were devastated. Some of my Native American friends pointed out to me that their families had been harvesting from those same stands for a millennia or more earlier.
- Demand for the fruits was strong and growing, supplies were short, and improper or excessive harvesting was having adverse environmental and social consequences. That situation continues today and one option is to produce the fruits in cultivation, as we do highbush and lowbush blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries. My goal was to provide large-scale processors and exporters with consistent supplies of high-quality fruit at reasonable prices, while conserving wild stands for smaller niche processors, and personal and cultural use by the residents and visitors to huckleberry country.
6. What are some distinguishing features of the huckleberry that I should include or focus on in a documentary? How do you introduce the berry to people who have never heard of it?
- Western huckleberries and bilberries closely resemble their eastern highbush blueberry and lowbush blueberry cousins in the appearance of the plants and fruits. They are, however, less closely related to eastern huckleberries, which are far less palatable.
- Western huckleberries differ in several important ways from domestic blueberries. For most western species, the berries have much less pulp than domestic blueberries and have thin skins that tear when the berries are picked. As a consequence, the berries leak large amounts of juice when they are picked, and the berries are nearly always processed, rather than being used fresh for table use. Domestic blueberries have thick, tough skins and come from the stems easily without tearing. This characteristic makes them ideal as a fresh finger food.
- Huckleberries also have different flavor chemistries than their domestic cousins and are prized for their powerful and exotic flavors. Depending on the cultivar, domestic blueberries have fair to excellent flavor, but little aroma. Some western huckleberry species, such as Cascade huckleberry and mountain huckleberry, are rich in esters, giving them powerful and pleasant aromas. Their flavors are also different than blueberries, sometimes described as being “wild” or “spicy.” All blue-colored blueberries and huckleberries (these crops also produce red, pink, and white berries) are rich in anthocyanin pigments and antioxidant activity. One of the species that I worked with is exceptionally high in antioxidant activity, but lacking in flavor and aroma. My work with that crop was directed toward the nutraceutial and health foods industries.
7. Are there any other wild plants that have economies / industries surrounding them the way the huckleberry does?
- Practically anywhere you go, you will find native crops that have deep cultural and economic roots. In some cases, the crops have been cultivated, in others they have not and people cherish the wild nature of the crops. Wild mushroom harvesting, for example, is practiced on a large scale in many parts of the world and many of those mushroom species have defied attempts to cultivate them. In the southern United States, mayhaw (a crabapple-like fruit) has long been harvested from the wild and cultivation is in its infancy.
8. Do you have any contacts who could be considered “experts” on huckleberries who might be interested in appearing in a documentary on huckleberries?
- I suggest contacting my friend Mr. Malcolm Dell (with the International Wild Huckleberry Association). He is a huckleberry expert and processor who is passionate about the crop and knows just about everyone who works with them.
Recently, Dr. Danny L Barney was interviewed by Jenna Pittaway, journalism student at the University of Southern California, who is researching the huckleberry for a possible documentary.
Here are his responses to questions relating to western huckleberries:
1. What does it mean to be domesticated and why is the huckleberry considered undomesticated?
Dr Barney: Western huckleberries and bilberries include nine species in western North America that are close relatives of domestic blueberries. I use the term “western huckleberries” to distinguish them from huckleberries found in eastern North America, which are distant cousins. The terms huckleberry, bilberry, blueberry, and whortleberry are interchangeable and most crops are known by several to many different names.
- Western huckleberries and bilberries are undomesticated in that the plants are general harvested from the wild. The crops are generally not grown in fields or gardens and virtually all of the berries that are used personally or commercially are harvested from naturally-occurring stands, quite often on public lands. Those stands receive little, if any, management in terms of the berry crops. Aside from my program at the University of Idaho from 1994-2010, there has been little breeding done with these crops, and no named cultivars (cultivated varieties) have been released for public or commercial use.
2. May you provide a summary of your research? How far along were you in domesticating the huckleberry and where did you leave your research – could someone pick up where you left off, or is it sort of gone forever?
Dr Barney: My research involved studying the biology of the plants and the habitats in which they are found, which includes the soils, climate, topography, and other plants growing in the same habitats. I collected seeds and plants from all nine species from the five Northwestern states, California, and Alaska and grew out and evaluated the plants for their potential for cultivated fruit production.
- After determining which species showed the greatest potential for commercial fruit production, and which sites produced the best plants and fruit, I expanded my collection trips to develop a substantial germplasm collection for breeding. The term “germplasm” refers to genetic resources, in this case live plants and seeds.
- From the many thousands of seedlings that I grew, I selected a handful that approached the standards I had set for characteristics such as upright, vigorous plant growth, and large fruits with good flavor, color, and acid to sugar balance. From those relatively few plants, I identified the most promising parents and made crosses by transferring pollen from one plant to another under very controlled conditions. In that way, I knew which offspring came from which parents.
- That program continued until the research station that I worked at and managed was closed due to budget cuts, and I left the University of Idaho to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I do not know of any other huckleberry and bilberry domestication programs that are now ongoing in North America, although there is some work being done with the closely-related European blueberry or bilberry that grows across parts of Europe and Asia.
- I created a large amount of published information, much of it readily available on line, describing the crops, my research results, and recommendations for future breeding and research. I also taught many classes and workshops on the subject. Published research on the crops by Dr. Don Minore (retired, U.S. Forest Service) and Dr. Nellie Stark (retired, University of Montana) is also available. Seeds are easy to collect from the wild, and I donated part of my seed collection to the United States National Plant Germplasm System, where it is maintained at germplasm repositories in Oregon, Colorado, and even the seed vault in Svalbard, Norway.
- I expect to retire in less than two years and plan to resume my huckleberry and bilberry breeding program in Alaska.
- For an introduction to huckleberries and my work, do an internet search using the words “barney huckleberry university of idaho.”
3. Were there past efforts to domesticate the berry, or was your work the first serious attempt?
- Several Native American and First Peoples groups in North America relied heavily on western huckleberry and bilberry crops for food and trade. Some of the nations were expert at managing naturally-occurring stands to keep the berry fields open and productive. Fire was one of the tools that they used for managing the stands.
- European settlers to western North America quickly began attempts to cultivate huckleberries and bilberries, usually by digging up plants and transplanting them to gardens. Those attempts nearly all failed and the myth was born that huckleberries cannot be cultivated. In reality, the problem was that what people thought were bushes were generally little more than branches from the underground stems that make up much of the plant body for some species. Digging up plants from the wild is seldom successful because few roots are dug up with the “bushes.” For practical, as well as environmental, reasons, I stopped removing plants from the wild many years ago and grew my plants from seed. Based on what we have learned about the plants and their habitat requirements, I was able to grow thousands of huckleberry and bilberry plants quite successfully, as did colleagues in Oregon and Montana.
4. Is anyone pursuing the domestication of the huckleberry presently?
Dr Barney: Not that I am aware of.
More of this interview next week!
Hi, my name is Harvey. I’m a wild huckleberry.
This is my story.
Sure, we were not the largest huckleberries on the hill — maybe not even the sweetest — but we lived in harmony with the mosquitoes, and occasionally shared a meal with a black bear or jay.
One day, when I was a teenager, and nearing the prime of my life, a group of purple-fingered bandits came through our community patch, and kidnapped us — my entire family, and ALL of my kinfolk! I think only my sister Henrietta was spared, by jumping from a fumble-fingered bandit, then hiding in the grass.
We were then dumped, unceremoniously, into a large, stifling box, moved by car to a holding facility, and nearly drowned in ice water, where we were stripped of our green, leafy wardrobe. Then they threw us into tiny cells in a facility with NO HEATING or oxygen! I choked and shivered for DAYS.
Then they started coming to get us… slowly at first, then in buckets.
The first tale of abuse, came from smothering in batter, and dropping onto hot oil, while those heartless bandits laughed and cheered in anticipation of our demise.
Then, victims were rolled in sweet white sand, and BOILED, before dislocation to glass cells. Others were forced to desegregate, and share living quarters with granola, flour, popcorn, apples, jalapenos, honey, ginger, poppyseeds, fruit juices, and even… our poor tasteless cousin, the blueberry! Gasp!
Some of my closest cousins were boiled in acid, and labeled as lemonade or dressing. Many of us were pulverized, and smashed into confections. I still have nightmares of those grinning little bug-eyed bandits with purple slobber drooling off their chins, while chewing on my friends, and making horrifying “ummm” sounds.
On my dad’s side of the family, many were suffocated in various colors of chocolate, and wrapped in a cold, aluminum blankets. Some were CAFFEINATED, in tea or coffee, and forced to lay awake for weeks.
This can’t continue… I MUST find a way to escape.
Oh no… MY CELL is moving now. Maybe this is it, my time to get away. Yes, we are heading toward the door. The bandit is leaning over and unzipping our cell, YES… but wait, no – what is that boiling liquid? I’m falling—
Oh, oh! Looks like Harvey got himself into a jam. (Excuse the pun.) Hopefully, he will not be back, to share his tale of abuse in someone’s digestive tract.
In the meantime, TASTES OF IDAHO - where all the huckleberry goodies Harvey mentioned can be found – would like to re-assure you that, in spite of the allegations, Harvey and his family were treated humanely. All berries used in products at TASTES OF IDAHO are certified natural, free range, fair trade, cage free, no spray, sustainably harvested, no animal testing (except for bears), and healthy (as long as you don’t read the ingredients labels!)
To enjoy the further adventures of Harvey, please stop by our store www.TastesofIdaho.com and turn wild huckleberries into a key part of your gift giving and get-togethers. After all, wild huckleberries are the IDAHO STATE FRUIT. Don’t get to Christmas without huckleberries in your holiday!
Many of you know of Dr. Dan Barney’s huckleberry research. If not, the International Wild Huckleberry Association followed his research until the UI closed his center in 2010 (See Dr. Barney’s Research).
Dr. Barney research, since 2004 (as documented on our site), resulted in finding successful methods to propagate the wild huckleberry from the norther Rockies area. Much of our original information posted on this site, came from Dr. Barney’s notes, workshops and documentation.
After Dr. Barney left Idaho, he was forced to abandon his research. The lab was dismantled and his plants were sold and donated to nurseries and interested folks in the area.
Since that time, we have had some contact with Dr. Barney, but nothing more than a note here and there telling us a bit about his new job(s) and his family. I was sad to hear that he had stopped his research.
Recently, I received an exciting note from him talking about his next big project that I would like to share.
Some good news. I ran germination tests on my (huckleberry) seed last month. The trip down from Alaska was less than smooth and the trucking company lost our household goods for two months in 100 degree plus weather. I expected all of the seed to be dead, but germination rates are still very good. All of the breeding lines are alive and well and ready to start next year when we return to Alaska. I also have an extensive new collection of alpine bilberry seed (a.k.a. Alaska blueberry in the north) that came from outstanding plants. I expect to have selections ready to release quite quickly, including some that should do well in the lower 48. The crop is extremely adaptable and flourishes from southern Alaska to well north of Fairbanks. The flavor is not quite as good as the Idaho huckleberry, but a little tweaking and a few crosses between the two should produce an easy-to-grow plant with excellent flavor and aroma.
We still have about 18 months before I can retire. We finished our retirement home in Alaska last November and are renting it out for now….. We have just under an acre of land, plenty to do my berry and rhubarb breeding work. The growers there are tremendous and I will have no difficulty getting people to test the selections. ….
We miss Idaho. That is where I was born and where we lived for many years … The people there are great and I appreciate all the support that I had for my program.
Great news!! We will be looking forward to more info from Dr. Barney (affectionately known as “Dr. Huckleberry”) and his continuing research.
Huckleberries are wrapped in secrecy and hidden in the wilderness, and only come out every other year. Or, huckleberries are everywhere in abundance always, and anyone can find them whenever they please.
Huckleberries are sweet. Huckleberries are sour. Huckleberries are woman’s work, or a job for a man. Huckleberries are bigger in the shade, or sometimes bigger in the sun; huckleberries are easier to pick with rakes, but should only be picked by hand.
Huckleberries are really blueberries … no! nothing like blueberries. Huckleberries are worth risking your life for — or one good reason for living …
We had the privileged of meeting ‘Asta a few summers ago when she came through north central Idaho to continue her new research for an updated version of The Huckleberry Book. Interesting lady — a school teacher from Montana who has written books on the wolves as well as huckleberries.
The Huckleberry Book is not just your typical book about huckleberries! ‘Asta entertains us with wonderful stories about huckleberries, huckleberry hunting and picking, huckleberries and bears, and a listing of home style recipes.
I’d like to share one of her unique huckleberry cake recipes from the book (page 84):
Sounds yummy!! If you are using frozen huckleberries, you might want to either add thickener to the berries to make sure it is not too runny!
A huckleberry lemonade product, manufactured by Gem Berry Products of Sandpoint, Idaho is featured in the “Entertaining Special’ holiday issue of “People” Magazine, on newsstands now through Christmas (2013).
Harry Menser, 82, and co-owner of Gem Berry, announces that their eight-year-old “Huckleberry Lemonade Concentrate” was selected as the sole Idaho representative for ‘People magazine’s — Food Gifts from Every State” feature article, on page 70.
According to Menser, a retired University of Idaho horticulturist, “People” magazine contacted the company via their GemBerry.com website in September, asked for samples, and approved the Gem Berry entry in October.
He added, that “the concentrate is made of pure wild huckleberry juice squeezed from Idaho huckleberries in small batches; then combined with 100% pure lemon juice, and sweeteners”.
The product comes in a 12-ounce “wine-shaped” bottle, with a colorful label, featuring a graphic of a bush with rich purple berries and a lemon. Combined with a gold shrink band, and decorative hang tag, the presentation is “striking”, Menser said, and is “very popular for holiday parties or gift giving”.
However, “most people tell us that 3 to 1 – water to concentrate – works even better”, Menser said.
Common uses for the huckleberry lemonade include just using it as a drink – per label instructions – or as part of a holiday punch with ice cream and sparkling cider. A large number of people also use it as a unique and delicious mixer for spirits, he added.
The huckleberry lemonade was the last recipe – in a long line – designed by Elizabeth O’Brien before her passing in 2004. Elizabeth and her husband Jack, were also founding owners of Gem Berry, in partnership with Menser and his late wife, Betty. Harry is the sole remaining member of the original foursome.
Gem Berry is still owned half by Menser, and half by the O’Brien estate.
Jack and Elizabeth O’Brien’s daughter, Mary, now runs the processing operation for Gem Berry.
Gem Berry, founded in 1993 (20 years ago) sells wild huckleberry, red raspberry, and wild blueberry products both at retail, and wholesale to retail stores and food service.
Huckleberry products, including jam, syrup, sugar free spread, honey, barbecue sauce, cordials, and taffy, are their biggest sellers.
Gem Berry is located at the Bonner Business Center (BBC) and was a charter client of the BBC Kitchen in 1993.
Products may be purchased online at http://www.GemBerry.com or by calling Sandy in customer service at (888) 231-1699.
In early November, we were in southern Idaho visiting with family when we found a free magazine called Edible Idaho South — Celebrating the food culture in Southern Idaho .
It is an interesting magazine with lots of recipes and food stories. One one of the last pages, I found an wonderful recipe that I would like to share today!
- For Cake
- 2 eggs
- 2 cups sour cream
- 8 oz. butter
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups sugar
- 3 cups flour
- For Cream Cheese Filling
- 8 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
- 3 eggs
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- For Crumb Topping
- 1 1/4 cups flour
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 4 oz. butter, chilled
- 1/2 cup raspberries
- 1/2 cup huckleberries
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 8 inch cake pans and line with paper
- To Make Cakes: In a small bowl, whisk eggs and cream together -- set aside. In a separate bowl, ream butter, baking powder and salt on low speed for about 2-3 minutes or until softened. Add sugar and increase speed to medium for 3-4 minutes until batter is light and fluffy -- scrapping down the sides of he bowl as needed. Reduce speed to low and in three additions alternate adding the remaining dry and wet ingredients -- mixing until just combined. Transfer batter to baking pans and spread the mixture evenly in both pans.
- For Cream Cheese Filling: Beat cream cheese on medium speed until light and fluffy -- about 5 minutes -- scraping down the sides of the bowl frequently. Add the eggs, one at a time, making sure each egg is fully incorporated after each addition. Add the sugar and cornstarch and mix until ingredients are combined -- about 1 minute. Divide the cream cheese filling between the two cake pans spreading filling with the back of a spoon evenly over the cake batter. Sprinkle the raspberries and huckleberries over the cream cheese filling.
- For Crumb Topping: Combine he flour and sugar in a bowl. Cut the butter into 1/4 inch pieces and drop them into the bowl of dry ingredients. Using your fingers, work the butter into the flour until the mixture is coarse and crumbly. Sprinkle the crumb evenly over berries between the two pans.
- Bake cakes until set, about 45 minutes to an hour. Let cakes cool completely before unmolding.
Photo courtesy of Stacey Cakes
Looking for that easy to make Huckleberry Cream Pie — the one to die for?
Well, we have it here!! And I, personally, have made it several times and it has always been a hit.
- 1 large package Instant Vanilla Pudding
- 1 cup milk
- 1 cup sour cream
- 1 small container of cool whip
- 1 16 oz. jar of huckleberry pie filling
- Combine the first four ingredients above (not the pie filling).
- Once they are mixed well, fold in the pie filling.
- Spoon into a crust of your choice.
- Refrigerate until ready to serve.
- Refrigerate any leftovers - if there are any!!
To help you out, here is where you can purchase the Huckleberry Pie Filling:
Huckleberry picking season is over (the snow is already flying in north Idaho! *sigh*). But I know there are lots of you who wanted huckleberries, but didn’t get any this year! Don’t despair as I have an alternative for you!
Tastes of Idaho has received a large inventory of huckleberry products — and will continue to add more products to the website over the next weeks. If you have never tried ‘commercial’ huckleberry products (most products on the site are handmade, in small batches, the ole’ fashion way), you will be pleasantly surprised at how good they really are!! And as the website name implies, all the products listed (including a few non-huckleberry items) are made in Idaho!
Tastes of Idaho carries some very unique huckleberry products such as:
- Huckleberry Snack Mix (nuts, seeds, fruit and sugar infused huckleberries)
- Idaho Redneck Huckleberry Toe Jam (humor product — and yes, it is edible!)
- Huckleberry Pie Filling (and yes, you can still have that pie you have been craving!)
- Huckleberry Cream Tea (loose leaf style)
- Huckleberry Cordials – dark or milk chocolate!
- Huckleberry BBQ Sauce (best on the market, in my opinion!)
- Huckleberry Poppyseed Vinaigrette (wonderful on salads!)
- Huckleberry Gems Candy Bars (real huckleberry flavor)
- Huckleberry Bath and Body Oil (so nice for back rubs)
- Huckleberry Spud Soap (yup! they are shaped like potatoes!)
Of course, we also carry a variety of huckleberry jams and syrups. And more products, like huckleberry pancake and dessert mixes, will be arriving soon.
If you love huckleberries and would like to give some products as gifts, you can order a “Build Your Own Huckleberry Basket”! Pick you favorite items, add a basket and shred, and your gift can be shipped to anyone in the US! What more can you ask for?
NOTE: I will be sending out another post when the rest of the products arrive in the warehouse!
“There is no shortage of huckleberry products out there …” writes Linda Stansberry in the North Coast Journal from California.
Linda talks about the many different huckleberry products she has tasted:
I have encountered huckleberry candy and huckleberry barbecue sauce, and last week I drank some huckleberry tea. They’re all disappointing. Nothing matches the taste of an actual, freshly picked huckleberry. These tiny blue-black orbs take forever to ripen, but they have a unique tangy-sweet flavor that makes them perfect for pies and other pastries.
NOTE: If you are looking for huckleberry products, check out these two websites:
She also talks about her picking experience with a Huckleberry Rake:
To my great surprise, the harvester was a success! The claw slid neatly along the branches of the bush and popped the berries off one by one, leaving most of the leaves. Within in an hour I had come close to filling my little plastic container. Granted, the harvester didn’t distinguish from the ripe, the almost ripe and the green, and there were still plenty of leaves and pine needles in my bounty, but I was impressed!
Her story is enjoyable …. and if you can’t find anything else of interest, make sure to check out her Huckleberry-Apple Pie Recipe!!
Enjoy the full article!…. And save me a piece of her pie!!