Growing Huckleberries Archive

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

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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

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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

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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.

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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!

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Update on Huckleberry Grower

Posted August 30, 2014 By sandy

From our friend Joe Culbreth who is a huckleberry grower in Rathdrum, Idaho.  This is the email I received from Joe last spring:

We here at Berry & Nut Farm are not a research center for huckleberries,  but are are growing huckleberries. We started our huckleberry field in 2010, which now, consist of about 1 acre and about 1200 plants.

We purchased our plants from 4 different sources. Our oldest plants are now 4 years old and we hope to see some flowers any day.

My grandsons and I visited Dr Barney in 2009 or 2010 to learn about growing huckleberries and nut trees. We should have had a few more sessions as Dr Barney had lots of knowledge, more than we could take-in in a 2 hour visit.

A few days ago, I received the following correspondence with the pictures attached:

You can’t tell from the attached photos, but plants have recovered from last winter’s, winter kill. That sounds better than, I lost a years growth.

 

As for providing shade protection for huckleberries, (we have planted) blackberries and apple trees behind the huckleberry plants ….

 

Farm 2014 08 21 blk vs hb 015Will be adding a lot more sawdust this fall, will not be tucking-in each plant with pine needles as I have the past 4 winters. I will be crossing my fingers…

 

We wish Joe the best success with his huckleberry crop.  For more information on his Berry & Nut Farm, check out his website

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Huckleberry Festival in Mount Hood, Oregon

Posted August 11, 2014 By sandy

Announcing the Huckleberry Festival in Mount Hood, Oregon.

According to Janet Eastman, writer for the Oregonian ….

Huckleberry Festival

Mt. Hood Huckleberry Festival and Barlow Trail Days has live music, storytellers, historical tours, a watermelon launch and other activities, exhibits, food and retail vendors, fresh wild huckleberries and huckleberry-filled treats. 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri-Sat, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun, Aug. 22-24. Mt. Hood Village Resort, 65000 E. Highway 26, Welches.

The family-oriented event will have live music, Native American storytelling, arts and crafts, and historical tours of Mount Hood’s Oregon Trail. Catapults and other uniquely designed contraptions will launch watermelons and other produce into the air.

Admission and parking are free.

You can also buy huckleberry goodies like jams, syrups, candies, teas, milkshakes, coffee and vinaigrettes as well as Indian frybread and tacos. There will be a Native American salmon bake and a huckleberry pancake breakfasts.

For more information about the Mt. Hood Huckleberry Festival, visit the Cascade Geographic Society.

HB bush r

The article also talks about growing and raising huckleberries. Here are some points of interest from the Northwest Berry and Grape Information Network

  • Huckleberries grow slowly, taking up to 15 years to reach full maturity from seed or cuttings, and prefer high elevations.
  • Black huckleberry colors range from black to purple to bluish tinge to red. You can even find white berries.
  • Cascade and black huckleberries are naturally adapted to short-season areas and depend on an insulating cover of snow for survival during winter’s sub-zero temperatures.
  • For small plantings on sites with poor air and water drainage, consider growing huckleberries in raised beds.

Some of the nurseries sited in the article that sell huckleberry plants:

  1. Bosky Dell Natives in West Linn
  2. Woodbrook Native Plant Nursery in Gig Harbor, Wash

For more information on growing huckleberries, check out our resource section for a copy of Dr. Barney’s book on Growing Western Huckleberries (available in PDF download as well).

Make sure to check out this informative article for more information on growing huckleberries.

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Huckleberries are easy to grow, tasty for jams and pies

Gloucester Daily Times

I ordered some herbs from a catalog this year. Included were some huckleberry seeds. I planted the seeds in an 8-inch clay pot, and now they are about a foot high. How high will they grow, and should I plant them in the ground?

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Fake Snake Saves Huckleberries!!

Posted May 24, 2011 By sandy

Counting on fake snake to save huckleberries

Bastrop Daily Enterprise
They were huckleberries just like the ones my mom used to pick and make the absolute best cobblers I ever tasted. I declare those huckleberry cobblers are

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Huckleberries Down Under

Posted January 15, 2011 By Patrick

Hi there, my name’s Patrick and I’m growing huckleberries in Perth, Australia!

I’m nearly 16 weeks into the process and have some lovely little seedlings so far. We’re getting well into an Australian summer so a couple haven’t survived the hot weather (maximum temps of at least 30C/86F and up to 37C/100F this week), but most are big and strong enough to cope.

A little bit of background – I fell in love with huckleberries when I moved to Portland, OR a couple of years ago. My wife got a job back in Australia, so before I moved I hiked up into the Mt Hood wilderness and picked some berries to collect the seeds. I checked it all out with AQIS to make sure that the seeds were allowed in the country and planted them a couple of weeks after I got back in early Spring. Prof Barney’s book is fantastic, I emailed him before I left for Australia and he was very encouraging, too. So far, the seedlings are growing in old cherry tomato punnets in “native plant striking mix” – my Dad’s a plant pathologist and raises Australian native plants with it. We tried transplanting a few seedlings a couple of weeks ago but I think the potting mix had too much nitrogen and they didn’t make it.

At the moment, we’re just maintaining them through the hot weather, fertilizing every 2-4 weeks and then when we get some cooler weather, we’re planning to transfer them to individual pots. I’ll upload some photos of the seedlings, too. I haven’t quite worked out yet how to get them cold enough to go dormant during winter without exposing them to frost. Might have to buy an old fridge…

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