Saturday, September 5, 2009

Huckleberries in Mother Nature's Garden

This is the winding dirt road that will take us to the huckleberries in Mother Nature's garden. The wild colony is less than ten miles from the paved road. However, this road is very primitive. So it's five to eight miles per hour all the way to the top of the mountain. Driving this slow is necessary not just for safety but also to fully enjoy the breath-taking scenery.

We (my son the driver and a friend and her husband, who is a passionate forester) are in North Idaho's high country. It's the second week of August and the wildflowers on the side of the road are starting to go to seed. Some of the petals are still soft, flawless and bright but most of the blooms have dried out. Surprisingly they still look very pretty. I mean naturally pretty and contented. Mother Nature obviously allows them to mature (age?) naturally and gracefully. And for no reason other than to produce viable seeds for the next growing season.

And these are the huckleberries in Mother Nature's garden. The western huckleberries according to Danny L. Barney Ph.D. of University of Idaho, belong to the genus Vaccinium, the same genus as bilberries, and the domesticated blueberries. The eastern huckleberries on other hand belong to the genus Gaylusaccia. They both look like blueberries because they are cousins and members of the heath (Ericaceae) family. But the fruit of Gaylusaccia contains ten large, hard, bony and crunchy seeds, making the berries difficult to eat. This is how some websites including Wikipedia described huckleberries when asked to compare it with blueberries. So for the record, the western huckleberries are more like blueberries but smaller, sweetly tart, and intensely more flavorful. And most importantly the seeds if any are not noticeable.

The huckleberry basket above is part of the Native American exhibit at the Grand Coulee Dam. (Please click on the picture to read the sign.) It is indeed a perennial favorite and is now being harvested from the wild for commercial processors. In the late seventies when we first started picking them behind 49 Degrees North ski resort in Chewelah, WA, if I wanted huckleberry wine, I would have to make it myself. Today, if you don't like wine how about a huckleberry martini or mojito? Some nice Spokane restaurant have it.

My Flora of the Pacific Northwest textbook listed several species of the western huckleberries including V. membranaceum, the state fruit of Idaho, V. deliciosum (YES! Love that name), and V. ovalifolium. They grow on acidic soil in coniferous woods in and around forest clearings at 2,000 to 11,000 feet elevation. The color varies from red to blue, purple and black. The huckleberries and blueberries above were frozen when I took the picture. The store bought blueberries are much bigger than the wild huckleberries but this too may change in the near future. The University of Idaho is conducting research on several species for edible landscape and future commercial fruit production. Not everyone is happy about it but if the demand keeps growing the domestication of huckleberries will benefit the bears who love it and need it to store fat before they hibernate.

This is the 30th annual Pig Out in the Park, in Spokane Washington's Riverfront Park. Six big days of fun from Sept. 2 to Sept. 7. Free admission and entertainment. There will be a total of 55 bands, 42 food booths and 3 adult beverage gardens. So what is it doing in my Mother Nature's garden post? The locally made MaryLou's Ice Cream is here. Next week they will be at the Spokane Interstate Fair.

The band on stage is Trampled by Turtles from Duluth, Minnesota. It's a string band playing bluegrass music so intense and energetic, a lot of people got up and dance right after I took this picture. Some dance with their babies, some with young children. Some dance barefoot, some with partners and some without. Grandpa was dancing with grandma and mom was dancing with dad. The green area in front of us were soon full of happy people having fun dancing and enjoying the music we don't hear very often. My friend and I were having fun too watching the players and the dancers. Listening to the mandolin, the fiddle, the banjo, the guitars and the vocals, while eating MaryLou's yummy homemade huckleberry ice cream in a homemade waffle cone. Life is good.


  1. Awesome scenery, Mother Nature is the finest gardener of all. I enjoyed your information on the huckleberries. We've only lived here in SE WA for a few years and have not been to Spokane. We may have to correct that in the near future, it is a beautiful area.

  2. The scenery is just fantastic. So very interesting about the difference between the huckleberries and blueberries and well explained. As a child (a hundred years!) ago I went with my father gathering blueberries, they probably were huckleberries, in the mountains, alps, in Switzerland. I remember them so well it took ages to fill a bucket. We did not have such wonderful baskets. I grow some blueberries and they do well, producing big juicy berries.

  3. I am not sure if I have ever has a huckleberry but it sounds like they would be terrrific for pie...any truth in that?

  4. Yes, it makes wonderful pie but kinda expensive to make at $40-50 a gallon.