Huckleberry Research Archive

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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What are Mummified Huckleberries?

Posted February 25, 2016 By sandy

A reader recently posted the following question on our website concerning mummified huckleberries:

… We have many red huckleberry and evergreen huckleberry bushes in our woods (in Washington).  I have noticed mummies in the e.h. plants–a local blueberry farmer expressed surprise that mummification had migrated to the wild.  Do you know if that is common, or something new?

I was not familar with mummified huckleberries, so I contacted Dr. Dan Barney who sent the following reply:

Mummy berry is caused by a fungal pathogen known as Monilinia urnula. This fungus attacks domestic blueberries and also their closely related western huckleberry and bilberry cousins. Please see Huckleberry (Vaccinium spp.)-Mummy Berry | Pacific Northwest Plant Disease Handbook

Mummified huckleberries

Red arrow points to mummified fruit of black huckleberry, Vaccinium membranaceum. Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks, British Columbia.

The pathogen is harmless to humans and nonmummified fruit can be harvested and used. Resistance to the disease varies between different genotypes (genetically distinct plants within the same species), and temperature and humidity play huge roles in whether the berries become infected. In warm, dry years, the disease may be nearly absent in a given huckleberry population, but very severe in the same population during a wet year. In my huckleberry and bilberry breeding program, this is one of the diseases that I screen for in choosing parent plants, in an attempt to select for resistance.

Thanks Dr. Barney for your explanation and references to the mummified huckleberries.

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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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