Preliminary Success in Taming the Wild Huckleberry

The Spokesman Review reports success in taming the wild huckleberry in their recent article which is quickly spreading to many news outlets.

Combining the original research, by Dr. Dan Barney at the University of Idaho’s Sandpoint Research station, WSU and others are working successfully to cultivate wild huckleberry plants.

Here are the highlights of the article By Becky Kramer:

Preliminary Success in Taming the Wild Huckleberry

WSU researchers taming the wild huckleberry

…Washington State University researchers are setting their sights on domesticating the wild huckleberry, a goal that has eluded plant scientists for decades.

Huckleberries are notoriously fickle plants. The mountain shrubs don’t transplant well and even huckleberry bushes grown from seeds seldom produce fruit.

But in a WSU greenhouse, cloned shrubs are producing berries. Scientists say their ultimate goal is a sturdy plant with high yields of the tangy-tart berries….

At the Pullman campus, rows of potted huckleberries are starting to display red fall leaves. They’re the cloned descendents of two huckleberry plants that Biotechnology Manager Nathan Tarlyn purchased at a commercial nursery several years ago.

Huckleberries growing in the mountains don’t produce until they’re about 5 to 7 years old. But in the greenhouse’s controlled climate, the 18-month-old plants flowered this spring. Tarlyn brought in bumblebees to cross pollinate the huckleberries with blueberries.

Now, he has 2,000 tiny seedlings from this year’s berry crop, which will be studied for desirable traits….

The work at WSU is taking a different approach to domesticating huckleberries than previous efforts at the University of Idaho’s Sandpoint research and extension office.

UI horticulture professor Dan Barney’s research focused on developing a pure strain of domestic huckleberries, without a blueberry influence. In a 2005 interview, Barney said he didn’t want to sacrifice flavor for abundance. Budget cuts ended the research, and Barney has since retired.

But higher yields are important for making huckleberries viable for commercial growers, Dhingra said. He hopes to release a domestic huckleberry within a few years that can be licensed. It would be sold with a proprietary high-acid soil mix and fertilizer….

Joe Culbreth has 1,200 huckleberry bushes on his 15-acre fruit and nut farm in Rathdrum. Six years after after the bushes went into the ground, he picked his first berries this summer….

But why the bushes produced this year remains a mystery to Culbreth, who wondered if the plants’ age or weather-related conditions triggered the fruit….

The bushes spread by rhizomes, which means an entire patch might be one or two plants. That’s why the shrubs don’t transplant well. Even starting a huckleberry bush from a transplanted rhizome is tricky. The plants seem to lack something from their original environment that they need to flourish.

But the cloned huckleberries in the WSU lab appear to be thriving in the potting soil mix. “We’re giving it a new environment,” Dhingra said…

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