Dr Barney Interview, Part Two
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.