Huckleberry Research Archive

Huckleberry Domestication Update

Posted August 15, 2018 By sandy

The International Wild Huckleberry Associate was first founded to share the research of Dr. Dan Barney on the domestication of wild huckleberries.  When Dr. Barney’s facility at the UI Research Center in Sandpoint closed in 2010, and he retired a few years later, others took up his quest to domesticate the wild huckleberry.  (If you are interested in reading Dr. Barney’s research notes, click here!)

Recently, we found an update of the research conducted by others that followed Dr. Barney in this quest.  KUOW published the following article:

Northwest Huckleberries Could Be Close To Domestication

Dr. Amit Dhingra … has been researching the humble huckleberry at the Department of Horticulture Genomics Lab at Washington State University since 2013.

“There were so many theories that you could not take a wild huckleberry plant and grow it in another environment,” Dhingra said. “I’ve always loved challenges and that’s what got me interested, because it hadn’t been done.”

But Dhingra had another motivation to research huckleberries too. He wants to create a healthier berry for Northwest farmers to grow in the future

“Huckleberries have approximately four times more anthocyanin,” said Dr. Dhingra.

That not only gives them a deeper color and richer flavor, it also packs huckleberries with more antioxidants.

READ THE FULL ARTICLE

Last year, Dr. Dhingra’s interest in pursuing the best of wild huckleberries was documented in an NPR article:

“Domesticating the wild huckleberry is impossible,” says Amit Dhingra, associate professor in the horticulture department at Washington State University. “They have been established in the wild in certain conditions in the forest, and their genetics are suited specifically for that purpose.”

Instead, Dhingra is heading an effort to make a totally new berry, with some of the qualities that makes the huckleberry so revered. The goal is to create a berry that can be grown in multiple environments — not just shaded areas of high elevations, like the huckleberry. Instead, berry production would be a bit more like the blueberry, which grows in bunches on the plant rather than single flowers like the huckleberry. The berry also has to be easy to store and transport and, of course, taste as good as a huckleberry.

“The flavor of the huckleberry is legendary,” Dhingra says. The project began in 2013, so huckleberry lovers shouldn’t start checking the grocery stores just yet. These not-huckleberry hybrids have only just started to produce.

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Huckleberry Picking Rakes Myths

Posted June 14, 2018 By sandy

Huckleberry picking season is nearly here!  With all the talk about picking huckleberries, I am reminded that there are several misconceptions about using huckleberry rakes. 

So, I have decided to share some excerpts from an article I wrote awhile back on this particular issue:

What is the Real Story Behind Picking and Harvesting Wild Huckleberries?

There are many myths in the outdoor community concerning using huckleberry rakes and the history behind the huckleberry rakes. The International Wild Huckleberry Association, in particular, has received fiery responses from readers attacking the use and recommendation of using huckleberry rakes.

We would like to share with you some of the stories behind the myths and why they are just that — myths!!

Huckleberry Picking Rakes Damage Plants and Should Not Be Used in Wild Huckleberry Stands

Dr. Dan Barney (or Dr. Huckleberry!) has stated the following about the use of huckleberry rakes:

Dr. Barney demonstrating huckleberry rakes

“The use of rakes to harvest huckleberries has long been a highly emotional one. During the early 1900s when there existed a large commercial huckleberry industry in the Northwest, many pickers used rakes or other devices. This is well-documented in “A Social History of Wild Huckleberry Harvesting in the Pacific Northwest” – General Technical Report PNW-GTR-657, 2006, USDA-Forest Service by Rebecca Richards and Susan Alexander. If the rakes damaged the bushes and berry yields, the pickers would not have been able to return year-after-year to the same sites.

“I have harvested all nine species of western huckleberries and bilberries by hand and with rakes. Used properly, rakes cause little or no damage to the bushes. Our western huckleberry and bilberry species bear fruit on shoots which form that same (current) season. In other words, when you are harvesting berries, the wood that will bear next year’s crop does not exist yet. To damage next year’s crop, you would have to either break off fairly large shoots or damage the lateral buds along those shoots. I have not observed either type of damage when using rakes to harvest huckleberries or bilberries native to the northwestern United States.

“Rakes do not work well for some species due to small berry size, twig conformation, or the way the fruit is borne on the branches. For other species, rakes can be used to quickly harvest fruits without damaging the plants.

“If a harvester is breaking off twigs and leaves with a rake, then the rake is not being used properly and the harvester is going to spend a lot of time picking few berries and much more time than necessary cleaning them. In other words, they are not going to be making any money and are not likely to persist with the rake.

“I, personally, do not support … legislation banning mechanical harvesting devices.

“As for the U.S. Forest Service banning such devices, The only National Forest, to my knowledge, that does so is the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in south-central Washington.

“I am far more concerned with the practice of cutting or breaking the branches off and harvesting the berries from the detached branches. This practice can severely damage the plants.

“Likewise, I have seen formerly productive colonies damaged by people digging up the plants, apparently with the idea of transplanting them in mind. Particularly sad is the fact that, for several native species, most of the transplants will die. Container-grown (huckleberry) plants transplant easily. There is no good reason for digging wild huckleberry or bilberry bushes from public land for transplanting.”

Dr. Danny L. Barney

March 7, 2007

The Native Americans Never Used Huckleberry Picking Rakes, so Neither Should We!

The myth about the damage caused by huckleberry rakes comes primarily from some members of the Native American community who, for cultural and spiritual reasons, do not like the use of man-made “tools” for picking huckleberries. So they’ve made broad claims about how damaging rakes are, and this myth is becoming an unfortunate urban legend over time, perpetrated by media which does no fact checking before putting misinformation into print.

Just as a point of fact, some Native Americans DO buy commercial picking rakes for huckleberries; and the FIRST HUCKLEBERRY RAKES or “combs” known to US history, were from native peoples, as reported on Page 8 of:

A Social History of Wild Huckleberry Harvesting in the Pacific Northwest” – General Technical Report PNW-GTR-657, 2006, USDA-Forest Service.

Native Americans used wooden hand-carved picking combs, or a raking tool made up of the backbone and one side of the rib cage from a salmon. Apparently, those tools worked quite well. And I am sure they were not out to rape the wild huckleberries or damage the plants.

READ THE FULL ARTICLE HERE

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The Pinchot Partners from the Packard, Washington area are working with the Gifford Pinchot National Forest to aid in the restoration of the forest and huckleberry crop.

According to The Chronicle, serving the greater Lewis County, Washington area, a meeting was held on May 24 to discuss the problem:

Those in attendance will learn about huckleberry areas in the forest and how the interested public can get involved with huckleberry restoration efforts. Information will also be available about huckleberry picking in the forest….

The Pinchot Partners and the Forest Service have worked together for the past seven years to improve huckleberry habitat. Harvesting trees commercially to “daylight” the huckleberry bushes, hand removal of competing vegetation, and conducting prescribed burning are all methods that can improve huckleberry production.

The Pinchot Partners was recently awarded two grants from the Weyerhaeuser Family Foundation to develop a forestwide strategy for restoring huckleberry habitat in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. 

In a follow up article from The Chronicle, the issue facing the Gifford Pinchot National Forest was described in detail:

As it turns out, huckleberries need a little bit of assistance from either nature or human hands in order to thrive among the dense thickets of forest that blanket the Cascade foothills. Namely, huckleberries require plenty of open canopy space in order to grow and ripen. Over the last 120 years, a combination of changing logging practices and increased fire suppression has created a forest that is choking out the once common huckleberry.

“Native Americans used to do burning to keep areas open and even logging helped,” explained Jamie Tolfree, coordinator for the Pinchot Partners. “The habitat is encroaching, bottom line.”

As the forest came under control of the U.S. Forest Service and logging operations began to dwindle, the forest grew denser. During that same time, Native Americans lost their right to conduct the controlled burns that cleared the underbrush where huckleberry bushes grow, and increasingly aggressive wildfire suppression efforts have prevented the natural thinning of timber stands.

John Squires, treasurer for the Pinchot Partners, says he’s been an eyewitness over the last few decades as formerly prime huckleberry habitat has begun to wither.

“I can remember being purple handed and purple faced and bringing my dad not very many huckleberries because most of them went in my mouth,” said Squires with a smile.

Squires used to regularly go picking up at the Midway Guard Station. Now, he says the terrain is covered in trees too thick to let the sun shine through. 

“You see the meadows just getting smaller and smaller,” said Squires, who estimates that about three-quarters of the huckleberry habitat in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest has been lost over the past 50 years or so. “We feel that if we’re not proactive and manage it appropriately it will disappear.”

In spite of the changing landscape, Squires still goes picking, but the task is much more difficult than before. He says he prefers to look in old clearcuts, but refused to divulge much more information than that. It seems huckleberry gatherers are as protective of their prime spots as golddiggers and mushroom pickers. 

“I’ll never tell you where I go picking,” said Squires. “That’s proprietary information.”

Squires said prime huckleberry season usually stretches from the end of July to the end of September, and amateur huckleberry hounds like himself don’t need a permit to go picking so long as they pick no more than 1 gallon per day or 3 gallons in a year. With huckleberries selling upwards of $30 per pound these days, Squires says that the health of their habitat is vital to the economy of Lewis County and other rural counties in Washington. He noted that huckleberries have never been domesticated, and commercial huckleberry harvesting permits typically sell out within two hours when they go on sale. 

After identifying the need to address the huckleberry problem eight years ago, the first hands-on huckleberry management efforts that the Pinchot Partners were involved in began about four years later. Those efforts include commercial logging of tall timbers and non-commercial cuts intended to clear out spindly trees and thick underbrush. The Pinchot Partners hope to monitor those sites as long as possible in order to study how those clearing efforts help to bring bright blue, purple and orange berries back to the landscape….

More info about the Gifford Pinchot National Forest

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Winter Snow in Huckleberry Country

Posted January 6, 2017 By sandy

While many of us in huckleberry country are still digging out from one of the snowiest winters, I am wondering what impact the snow will have on the huckleberry crop this summer.

Here are some excerpts on the impact of weather on huckleberries:Winter Snows in Huckleberry Country

Huckleberries purple gold

by Laura Roady

Each year’s huckleberry crop depends on the weather. A cool, cloudy spring means a poor huckleberry year because the insects won’t have enough time to pollinate the short-lived blossoms….

Okay, nothing here about snow though!

But I did find some references to the soil where huckleberries grow after a fire — which of course reflects the benefits to the huckleberry crop after the 2015 fires:

While huckleberries grow in old burns, they aren’t like morels that proliferate the year after a fire. Huckleberries can take 15 years to reach maturity, but will bear fruit sooner. The ashy soil left behind by fires provides nutrients for the huckleberry plants, which thrive in damp, acidic soil.

Another reference from 2011 which was also a year for heavy snowfall:

Huckleberries — Beautiful Plant, Delicious Berries

by Jeanne DeBenedetti Keyes

Family lore has it that huckleberries are especially abundant during a year with a heavy snowpack. Now, this makes sense but is it really true?…

But what constitutes a “good year?” The Pacific Northwest had a record snowfall this year. The cool spring and summer allowed the snow to slowly melt, providing the huckleberries with a steady source of moisture.

And this is not complete without a note from Dan Barney’s Book:

Growing Western Huckleberries

Cascade and black huckleberries are naturally adapted to short-season areas and elevations of 2,000 feet and above. They depend on an insulating cover of snow for survival during winter’s sub-zero temperatures. Likewise, late-winter cold snaps (temperatures in the teens or single digits) following above-freezing warm spells can damage the bushes….

Huckleberries require a dormant winter period with temperatures around freezing. Production is possible in USDA plant hardiness zones 4-8. Whenever possible, grow huckleberries where 1 to 2 feet of snow persist throughout the winter, where winter temperatures remain above 0 degrees F, or where the plants can be protected when temperatures drop to 0 degrees F or below.

After reading Dr. Barney’s information and talking with ‘Mr. Huckleberry’, it is apparent that the snow cover is good for the huckleberry plants.  With the extreme cold we have experienced in the north western Rocky Mountain region, the heavy snows are protecting the plants.  And, of course, the melting snow will give the plant plenty of moisture in the early spring.

As for the rest, I guess we will have to wait and see how the season progresses!

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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

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Domesticating wild huckleberries is a project that several different agencies have researched over the years.  Dr. Dan Barney,who has been a friend of this organization since its inception, has several articles on his findings while working at the University of Idaho’s Sandpoint Research center (which was closed in 2010).

New Development on Domesticating Wild Huckleberries

Dr. Dan Barney presentation at the Elk River Huckleberry Workshop held in 2005

Nathan Tarlyn, a research assistant at Washington State University, has recently picked up the torch on domesticating wild huckleberries , according to an article by Taryn Phaneuf in CrossCut.com.

Here are some excerpts from her article:

Taming the Northwest’s beloved huckleberry

Huckleberries are completely wild — they won’t be found lined up in rows on farms like their tamed cousin, the blueberry. Instead, thousands of people appear in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest each year, armed with buckets and permits, looking to cash in on a berry crop that retails for upward of $10 per pound.

Previous attempts have failed because wild huckleberries’ dependence on their ecosystem makes them notoriously hard to grow anywhere else. But Tarlyn works in a lab known for its deep dives into plant genomes that wind up solving major problems in the world of tree fruit, and the huckleberry puzzle caught researchers’ attention. Three years after he introduced the challenge, a set of huckleberry plants growing in a campus greenhouse produced fruit — a process that takes closer to seven years in the wild. Researchers estimate that within another year, the first domesticated variety will be ready….

The lab began with tissue cultures from wild huckleberry plants Tarlyn bought at a wild plant store. Normally, it would take years for those cuttings to reach maturity, but a previous breakthrough by Dhingra’s lab altered the timeline. They pioneered a method for propagating plants five times faster than traditional nurseries using a soil-free, nutrient-rich medium….

Step by step, the lab saw success with huckleberries: With the right soil mix, plants survived in the greenhouse, where researchers could manipulate the conditions to speed up growth. To get berries this year, Tarlyn put blueberry plants in the greenhouse and released bumblebees for pollination. The unorthodox method worked, and now they’re germinating new huckleberry seeds to see what traits the crosses will have that may lead to an attractive variety later….

“Our goal is to have the productivity of a blueberry and the quality of a wild huckleberry,” Dhingra says….

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Restoring Huckleberries After Fires

Posted August 10, 2016 By sandy

Last year experienced one of the biggest fire seasons in the Pacific Northwest — including the burning of several acres of huckleberry habitat.  Restoring huckleberries after fires is a concern of every huckleberry picker.

Historically, Native Americans burned huckleberry fields to improve the health of the huckleberry patches.  The Gifford Pinchot National Forest Huckleberry webpage describes this process:

For thousands of years, American Indians spent summer and fall high in the mountains hunting, fishing, picking berries, and celebrating the plentiful gifts of the land. Once every few years, they burned the berry fields after harvest, to kill invading trees and to insure healthy fields the following year. The Indians in this area regarded the rituals of picking, preserving, and eating berries as a cultural and traditional use with religious significance….

Thousands of years ago, uncontrolled wildfires created openings in the vast forest. Huckleberries prospered in the sunlight caused by these natural openings. For countless years, repeated fires caused by lightning or set by Indians killed the invading trees and brush. But the forest is constantly trying to reclaim its lost territory. If it were not for fire, the berry fields of today would have long since been reclaimed by the forest. Today, scientists are trying to determine the best method of maintaining the huckleberries as a valuable forest resource…

Restoring Huckleberries After Fires

In this tradition, the Colville Indian tribe is working to restore huckleberry plants on their reservation in northeast Washington.  The Tribal Tribune posted two stories about this project:

Nearing the one year anniversary of the fire, several Tribal and BIA programs gathered in the burned scarred area of Upper Gold Creek in hopes of reintroducing huckleberries (also known as vaccinium membranaceum) back to the area.

On July 13-14, Jon Meyers Project Lead/Resource Specialist for the BAER Team and History and Archeology accompanied by his staff, Mount Tolman Fire Center, Forestry Reforestation Offices and TANF Summer Youth Workers assigned to Forestry planted 1,880 huckleberry plants purchased from the University of Idaho with funds from the BAER Emergency Stabilization Fund.

If 50 percent of the plants survive, this project will be considered successful.

Read more about their efforts:

 

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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

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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.

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Everything You Want to Know about Huckleberries

Posted April 22, 2016 By sandy

As you know, we have tons of information about huckleberries on this site — especially about the huckleberries grown in the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Northwest region. But we may not have EVERYTHING you want to know about huckleberries!

But, believe it or not, there is some interesting information about huckleberrEverything you want to know about huckleberriesy on Wikipedia

Following is some information from their huckleberry listing:

The name ‘huckleberry’ is a North American variation of the English dialectal name variously called ‘hurtleberry’ or ‘whortleberry’ /ˈwɜːrtəlˌbɛrɪ/ for the bilberry. In North America the name was applied to numerous plant variations all bearing small berries with colors that may be red, blue or black. It is the common name for various Gaylussacia species, and some Vaccinium species, such as Vaccinium parvifolium, the red huckleberry, and is also applied to other Vaccinium species which may also be called blueberries depending upon local custom, as in New England and parts of Appalachia.

The ‘garden huckleberry’ (Solanum scabrum) is not a true huckleberry, but is instead a member of the nightshade family.

Here is the info about our local huckleberries:

From coastal Central California to southern Washington and British Columbia, the red huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) is found in the maritime-influenced plant community. In the Pacific Northwest and mountains of Montana and Idaho, this huckleberry species and several others, such as the black Vaccinium huckleberry (V. membranaceum) and blue (Cascade) huckleberry (V. deliciosum), grow in various habitats, such as mid-alpine regions up to 11,500 feet elevation, mountain slopes, forests or lake basins. The plant grows best in damp, acidic soil having volcanic origin, attaining under optimal conditions heights of 1.5 to 2 m (4.9 to 6.6 ft), usually ripening in mid-to-late summer or later at high elevations.

I found it very interesting that many of the quotes in this Wikipedia article are from Dr. Dan Barney, who previously, ran the U of I Research Center in Sandpoint where he worked on several huckleberry projects!

 

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