Growing Huckleberries Archive

Preliminary Success in Taming the Wild Huckleberry

Posted September 23, 2016 By sandy

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…



Be the first to comment

Huckleberries Important to Animals too!

Posted September 15, 2016 By sandy

We hear lots about how important huckleberries are to the Native Americans, commercial pickers and gourmet food producers, but we seldom think about how huckleberries are important to animals living in the forest.

Last year, we shared a couple posts about the huckleberry research Tabitha

Tabitha Graves

Tabitha Graves

Graves was conducting.

The Missoulian recently published another article on her research.  Here are some of the highlights:

Researchers start long-term hunt for huckleberry secrets

When Tabitha Graves took up carnivore research for the U.S. Geological Survey base at Glacier National Park, one of the biggest puzzles needing attention was the role huckleberries play in the food chain. Although creatures from grasshoppers to grizzlies like the purple fruit, we know little about what the berries themselves like.

“The more I’ve gotten into this, the more I’ve realized how important they are,” Graves said. “All kinds of birds eat them, as do small mammals. We’ve found coyote scats with berries in them. We’ve seen wasps eating them. And of course, humans eat a lot of them.”

Then there are the snowshoe hares and deer and moose that munch on huckleberry leaves, at least six species of bee that collect huckleberry pollen, and who knows what kinds of mycorrhizal fungi that grow together with the roots. Did we mention bears eat them, too?

All that might explain why huckleberries have resisted all attempts at domestication. The inability to grow huckleberry bushes in a greenhouse or garden has frustrated researchers for decades. It’s also left big parts of the plant’s life cycle unknown.

… Wildlife managers know that good or bad huckleberry crops influence how many black and grizzly bears wander into town looking for apples or bird feeders – but they don’t know how to predict a good or bad year. Huckleberries react to drought and drenching conditions, but can they forecast them? How might forest thinning and hazardous fuels work affect huckleberry patches?

Read the rest of this interesting article


2 Comments so far. Join the Conversation

The Future of Wild Huckleberries

Posted August 2, 2016 By sandy

On the heals of the story of Joe Culbreth’s success in growing huckleberry plants, Saveur Magazine published the following article, on the future of wild huckleberries, noting our organization and website:

The Future of Wild Huckleberries

These Beloved Wild Berries Are in Danger From Habitat Destruction—But They Refuse to Be Tamed

Every year, huckleberry obsessives eagerly await the start of the season. These squat purple berries look a lot like blueberries, but with a more sour bite, and unlike the summer fruits that you can find in just about any grocery store, Pacific Northwestern huckleberries only grow in the wild. And because of ecological disruption from logging and road construction, the berry’s cult followers are beginning to worry, Atlas Obscura reports….

… The solution to the huckleberry shortage may lie in domestication, but so far no one’s been that successful on any scale. Malcolm Dell, the founder of the Wild Huckleberry Association, says European settlers’ initial efforts to farm the berry failed because they were trying to replant the wrong parts. Soon the berries “developed a reputation for being unfarmable.” Since then, botanist Dr. Danny Barney has come close to replicating the berry, but was forced to stop researching when his lab closed because of budget problems….

Of course, one of the huckleberry’s main obstacles to domestication is that the berry’s devotees are partly attracted to its wildness. But if development continues unabated, there’s a chance most of those wild fruit lovers won’t be able to enjoy the tasty berry in its natural habitat—or at all….

Read the full article here





Be the first to comment

Domesticate Huckleberries?

Posted July 28, 2016 By sandy

One of the International Wild Huckleberry Association’s friend and reader has made local news with his attempts to domesticate huckleberries.

Here is part of his story from the Coeur d Alene Press website:

Joe Culbreth

Berry and Nut Farm now producing huckleberries

Joe Culbreth’s 15-acre swath of land is beautifully organized into arcing rows of flowers, berries, grapes and a wide variety of fruit trees. He always wanted to plant and grow things when he retired, so he did….

Six years ago, he bought more than 1,200 huckleberry plants for his farm. Usually, when people want huckleberries, they go into to forest and pick them wild.

“I wanted something different and I love huckleberries,” he said. “I’ve been huckleberrying in Idaho since ’79.”

Culbreth bought huckleberry plants from a variety of locations, one of which was from the University of Idaho’s Sandpoint Research and Extension Center where Dan Barney, head of the center, was doing research to domesticate huckleberries.

Over the years Culbreth has used Barney as a resource for information about maintaining the plants.

He learned huckleberries like partial shade. So, he planted blueberry bushes and dwarf apple trees on the west side of the huckleberries, to make that partial shade.

Unfortunately for Culbreth, Barney moved to Alaska recently, leaving Culbreth alone to tend to the huckleberries, which never grew. And year after year, they still never grew any berries. Each year, Culbreth held out hope the next year the plants would bear fruit.

Finally, in their sixth season on his property, the huckleberries are growing.

He thinks this year’s mild winter and early spring have helped the plants produce fruit. As of right now, most of the huckleberry bushes have produced fruit that looks ripe, but tastes green. One bush had good berries on it.

Read the full article here



Be the first to comment

Taming the Wild Huckleberry

Posted July 14, 2016 By sandy

If you did not already see the article, Malcolm, from the International Wild Huckleberry Association, was interviewed by for a recent article on the Atlas Obsura website:

Taming the Huckleberry

Will We Ever Tame The Wild Huckleberry?

…The Pacific Northwest takes huckleberries very, very seriously. Starting in July, droves of huckleberry hounds fall on state parks and roadside patches, eyes peeled and picking pails in tow. Soon after, any berries that aren’t scarfed on sight begin turning up in everything from snow cones to daquiris to barbecue sauce. States fight over them: there are several self-proclaimed huckleberry capitals, and Idaho has made it their official fruit. Individuals fight over them, too: in Montana in 2014, gunfire was exchanged over potential patch pilfering. “There’s probably a million huckleberry pickers in the Pacific Northwest,” says Malcolm Dell, founder of the Wild Huckleberry Association and a longtime picker himself. “It’s much bigger than people realize.” …

Native Americans cultivated wild huckleberry stands, encouraging their growth with controlled burns. When early European settlers tried to transplant the berries elsewhere, they failed miserably, for a very basic reason: they took the wrong part of the plant. Huckleberries spread via rhizomes, long, leggy strands that look like roots, but are really just underground stems. “They think they’re digging up a plant, but they’re just digging up a limb,” says Dell. “Replanting” one is like burying a stick—nothing happens….

For Dell, domestication would let huckleberry lovers have it both ways. “They’d have the commercial crops that are grown in the fields, and then there’d be the wild picking that still goes on for recreationalists,” he says. Barney’s research is publicly available, and his seeds are in several federal collections, waiting to be planted. Until then, their cousins will grow wild, awaiting their fate.




Be the first to comment

Huckleberries & Fire, Part Three

Posted September 1, 2015 By sandy

Following is the third in a three part article on Huckleberries and Fire by Malcolm Dell aka Mr. Huckleberry

Landscape activities that affect the development of huckleberry patches:

1) Fire suppression activities led to a decline in huckleberry patches across North America in the past century, by disrupting the natural fire frequency, and creating denser stands of smaller trees and less stimulation of the understory.

2) Clearcutting, which can mimic the effects of fire, has fallen out of favor due to poor aesthetics and past overuse (and abuse).

3) Timber harvesting in general is way down on federal lands (due to the environmental quagmire), and that is where most huckleberry stands are found in the western US.

4) Long-term weather patterns (i.e. increased temps and lower rainfall during summer months), combined with fuel buildup – from (3) above – create fires that are now much hotter, with greater risk of sterilizing the soil. Rhizomes and seeds are less likely to survive, and even if they do, can’t always do their thing in a baked soil.

Huckleberries & Fire

So, how will the 2015 (or any year’s) fires affect future huckleberry crops?

Where (regardless of land ownership):

  •  The fire occurred in huckleberry habitat – limited to parts of rich forested zones or high elevation subalpine forest habitats, AND
  • There was a huck patch or wildlife feces supplying a seed source, or with rhizomatous tissue remaining in the soil, AND
  • Those seeds and rhizomes survived the fire, AND
  • All or a substantial portion of any conifer overstory was removed by crown fire, AND
  • The burned area is not sprayed with herbicides next spring to support tree planting…

You should see a vigorous opportunity in huckleberries in about three to seven years, which should result in fabulous crops during the 2020s, and maybe into the 30s.

And so it is…!

PS Based on research at the University of Montana, you can stimulate individual huckleberry bushes and production in your favorite patch even more, by going out and hand pruning out competing plants around established huck stems. Of course, I didn’t tell you that… just in case the landowner or land management agency does not allow this sort of activity! But I highly recommend it on your own ground, or where you have permission. (And no one sees you in your favorite patch on Zipperlip Mountain…).

Another informative article on subject:

Huckleberry fields benefit from flames:  Joint effort between Forest Service, Yakama Tribe aimed at restoring productivity in Gifford Pinchot through controlled burns

Be the first to comment

Huckleberries & Fire, Part Two

Posted August 29, 2015 By sandy

Following is the second in a three part article on Huckleberries and Fire by Malcolm Dell aka Mr. Huckleberry

Smokey the Bear has probably destroyed more huckleberry habitat than any other single factor. He is an icon for fire suppression programs in US forests, triggered by large fires in the early 1900s.

(I am not saying Smokey is bad, as the loss of natural and human resources from fire is catastrophic. But like anything else, there is a price to be paid when we disrupt Mother Nature.)

Huckleberries & Fire

Native Americans understood the benefits of fire on the landscape, and regularly started fires to rejuvenate and promote desirable berries and other species. In fact, early non-native explorers to the Pacific Northwest often talked about the hazy smoke that filled the mountains from man-caused fires, in addition to the natural fires.

After a fire, huckleberries will start sprouting from rhizomes if there is still living tissue in the soil, not sterilized by fire intensity. Also, seeds that survive the fire, or dropped by birds or bears, can restart the huck population.

Huckleberries reproduce kind of like insects, using masses of tiny seeds to win the competition with other plants. Seedlings are VERY tiny, one or two inches the first spring, and can be so thick they almost form a thin carpet. They are hard to recognize when sprouting, as they do not look much like huckleberry leaves or plants.

(And of course, due to seeding, rhizomatous colonies can intertwine.)

Due to their diminutive competitive size, seedling survival is very, very low. But if one seed prevails, and takes root, a colony begins forming. And they grow like the dickens once established.

Unfortunately, dozens (maybe hundreds) of plant species are following a similar protocol, in a race to take over as much space as they can after fire. But if a huck patch forms, the rhizomes often shoulder out lesser competition to create a nice patch. Purple fingers here we come!

Typically, it may take five years (on average) from seed – less from rhizomes – to begin bearing fruits on the bushes, depending on competition and sunlight. And they should bear for 10 or 15 years. After this time, you may see reduced vigor, and larger brush species (e.g. maple, willow) often choke them out. And conifers that seed in from adjacent mature trees, or from tree planting programs, often start shading out all the brush, including huckleberries.

The best thing that could happen at that point, to rejuvenate huckleberries, is a nice fire.

Stay tuned for Part Three

Be the first to comment

Huckleberries and Fire, Part One

Posted August 26, 2015 By sandy

Following is the first in a three part article on Huckleberries and Fire by Malcolm Dell aka Mr. Huckleberry

Wild huckleberries of the genus Vaccinium – common to the western US and parts of Europe – are rhizomatous, forming colonies of bushes that are really just one plant. A seed sprouts, and then the roots (called rhizomes) spread through the soil, popping up stems in the adjacent area, thereby forming a “patch”.

Huckleberries & Fire

This characteristic of huckleberries leads to the myth that hucks cannot be commercialized. People go to the woods, shovel up a stem/rhizome (which is really just a twig or branch), and stick it in the ground at home, in an inappropriate soil type. Results are predictable.

Note that huckleberry soils are highly acidic – a common trait of the rich coniferous and sub-alpine forest habitats where they are found.

Huckleberries actually grow very easily from their VERY tiny seeds. Smear ripe berries across a paper towel or fine wire mess such as a dense strainer, let them dry and save them. Carefully! Breathing on them may send them flying.

But that is another story.

So, the questions here becomes… how does fire affect huckleberry ecology and future crops? And what can we expect in the aftermath of an historic fire season…one that affected many tens of thousands of acres of potential huckleberry habitat?

Generally, huckleberry colonies or patches – like virtually all brushy species – are heavily stimulated by fire.

After a fire, competition for space, water, and nutrients is reset to zero; the darker soil attracts early spring warmth; and the burnt plant materials fertilize the soil with massive amounts of mineral-rich ash. Roots that survive the fire (most do), sprout with a vengeance the following spring. After almost any fire, the landscape literally turns into a far richer green than it was the spring before the fire.

For some species, fire “scarifies” seeds or cones, allowing them to sprout more easily after a fire, as part of their natural ecology. Examples would be lodgepole pine and red-stem ceonothus (a preferred elk browse).

Of course, fire intensity may affect which species are promoted after a fire, and whether huckleberries come back.

Hucks grow best in full sunlight, up to about 30% shade, at which time the colonies begin to decline. So, openings from fire (historically) and clearcutting (more recently), are usually critical to an abundance of healthy patches. Sometimes patches also rejuvenate after insects or disease remove the coniferous overstory, letting in sunlight.

Stay tuned for Part 2

Be the first to comment

Interview with Dr. Barney, Part 2

Posted April 15, 2015 By sandy

A week or so ago, we published a written copy of Dr. Barney’s interview with Kristina Johnson who is a food and agriculture reporter.

Here is the second part of the interview:Interview with Dr. Barney

3. What ecological/human threats face the wild berries?

Although the size and number of colonies are decreasing, none of the western Vaccinium species are threatened or endangered. Most are quite robust throughout their ranges, although some species are far more common than others.

4. Your report on growing the western huckleberry explains how people can plant the bushes by seed or transplant. My horticulture know-how is likely limited here, but how is that different than domesticating the plant?

Domestication involves developing improved varieties and production methods that allow the crops to be grown reliably and easily in commercial and noncommercial settings. Domestication also means having a consistent and predictable product. You may have a favorite apple or peach variety, for example. You know what a ‘Golden Delicious’ apple looks and tastes like. You know what to expect. We were trying to develop the same predictability and quality level with huckleberries.

5. Who are the commercial pickers? Are they people who primarily make their living off of foraged forest products?

Commercial pickers range from individuals, families, and small groups that pick small quantities of berries and sell them alongside the road to large, professional crews hired by brokers or processors. Some of the commercial crews represent immigrant labor, but not all. Picking usually commences in early July and runs until the berries are frosted off in September. The major period is mid-July through late August. Obviously, this is a part-time job and is often used to supplement income from other seasonal jobs, such as work at a ski resort.

6. Are there any estimates as to how much money the annual harvest amounts to? Are there maps that show the largest harvest regions within each state? (I grew up spending summers in Montana, so I remember all the buzz around huckleberry jam, ice cream, pies. The berries were a tourist magnet).

The berries remain a tourist magnet and there are myriad huckleberry products available – culinary, cosmetic, ornamental, and nutraceutical. I have been away from the industry for five years, however, and no longer have current economic figures. You might consult with an economist at one to the regional universities for better information.

7. You mentioned in your email that some of the berries likely go to export. Can you expand on who the primary buyers are for huckleberries?

My information regarding exports is apocryphal, so I will not elaborate. My understanding is that there was a demand for freeze-dried huckleberries for Pacific Rim markets, but I have no documentation to support that assertion.

Be the first to comment

Interview with Dr. Barney

Posted March 31, 2015 By sandy

Although Dr. Barney is not currently propagating and growing huckleberries, he is still considered the expert on the subject and giving interviews to interested parties.

Dr. Barney rake demo,We are fortunate to have a written copy of his interview with Kristina Johnson who is a food and agriculture reporter:

1. Where does domestication of the berries stand now? Is there research close to succeeding?

Unfortunately, I believe little university or other government research is presently being conducted on domestication of western huckleberries and bilberries. Research funding is limited, and efforts are being directed toward well-established crops, such as raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries. Much knowledge remains to be discovered and developed before most western Vaccinium crops can be grown successfully in commercial settings.

It is important to identify the different crops. I use the term “western huckleberries and bilberries,” which includes about eight species in the genus Vaccinium. All are edible, and several have outstanding culinary quality. The seeds are usually small to very small. The common names “huckleberry,” “bilberry,” and “whortleberry” are interchangeable and many species are known by all of these names and more. Eastern huckleberries are members of genus Gaylusaccia and, like Vaccinium, members of family Ericaceae. Unlike western Vaccinium species, eastern huckleberries have ten large, hard seeds and the berry flavor and culinary quality leave much to be desired. When it came time to domesticate a blue American fruit, farmers and breeders chose highbush and lowbush blueberries.

The domestication efforts that I was involved with included work on Vaccinium species … have the greatest immediate potential as culinary crops. Vaccinium ovalifolium (oval-leaf huckleberry) has good potential as a nutraceutical crop due to its high antioxidant properties. I did not work much with Vaccinium ovatum (shot or blackwinter huckleberry) which grows along the Pacific coast and has been cultivated to a small extent, primarily for ornamental foliage used by florists.

We were able to develop and demonstrate several production systems, and know how to grow the berries. I grew many thousands of plants in Idaho and colleagues also grew the plants successfully in northwestern Montana and western Oregon. The greatest limiting factor is the lack of improved varieties that have been developed to provide good site adaptability, acceptable growth and plant habit, and commercially-acceptable fruit in sustainable yields.

My breeding program at the University of Idaho produced some advanced selections. However, we were still at least one and probably two generations from releasing a cultivated variety when the research station that I was at closed due to budget cuts and I left the University. That program was not picked up by anyone else. Some of the selections are still being tested by growers in the northwestern U.S. and western Canada. I intend to resume the Vaccinium breeding program upon my retirement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in October 2015. That program will take place in Southcentral Alaska.

2. Can you explain the incentives to domesticate the berries? Is it primarily commercial manufacturers pushing the research? What are the economic and ecological incentives and/or potential drawbacks to domesticating the berry?

Western huckleberries and bilberries have been harvested for food for at least centuries and likely millennia. They were vitally important both for food and trade for several Native American and First Peoples nations in western North America. When European colonists arrived they quickly adopted the crops and by the early 1900s were shipping large quantities of wildcrafted (plants harvested from the wild) berries to eastern markets. Picking the berries is very labor intensive and usually takes place in remote locations. The fruits are borne individually on the bushes, rather than in large cluster like domestic blueberries, and mechanical harvesters are not often feasible. Therefore, the amount of berries one person can pick per day is low. The commercial market peaked in the 1930s, and largely died during World War II when labor became scarce. The market began to re-emerge in the 1980s as general and ecotourism increased in the Northwest and western Canada.

Prior to the early 1900s, forest fires were not controlled and the forests were very different than they are now. Tree density was lower and understory shrubs much more abundant. With the advent of modern fire-fighting methods, fires were largely removed from the landscape. Native Americans had long kept highly productive berry harvest areas productive using controlled fires. That practice was outlawed. By the end of the 20th century, tree density had greatly increased while productive berry acreage shrank dramatically as the trees reclaimed the landscape and shaded out the berry crops.

While none of the berry species is threatened or endangered, colonies suitable for commercial harvest have greatly decreased in size and number due to forest encroachment and development of forest lands. With increased demand for the fruit for commercial culinary and nutraceutical purposes, commercial harvests have become increasingly aggressive and have reduced the availability of fruit for cultural, recreational, and subsistence pickers. In a related way, commercial harvests have resulted in conflicts with some Northwestern Native American groups, for whom huckleberries are an important part of their culture.

Wild huckleberry harvests are highly variable. During some years, the yields are very high and during other years very low. On average, you can expect a good harvest every 3 to 7 years. Such unpredictability makes operating a commercial enterprise challenging and encourages overharvest whenever the opportunity presents itself. The unpredictability also influences prices greatly, impacting income for pickers, brokers, and processors.

My program was intended to provide reliable crops of commercially sustainable quantities of fruit grown in cultivation or in managed forest stands (like highbush and lowbush blueberries, respectively) and to leave the wild forest huckleberry colonies for noncommercial harvests.

More of the interview next post!

3 Comments so far. Join the Conversation