By Mike Willis
Summer always ushers in a wave of excitement in the northwest. After a long winter and seemingly never-ending wet spring, mother nature finally surrenders to the summer sun’s persistence. During those long summer days, you can witness people flocking to the hills in search of purple gold!
The huckleberry is commonly described as a tart blueberry. However, most diehard fans of the huckleberry strongly object to this comparison. For those who have grown up with this northwestern delicacy, the berries compel them to return each picking season. Whether eaten fresh, made into jam, or baked into a pie, these berries will be sure to make a lasting impression.
The huckleberry comes from shrubs of the genus Gaylussacia (family Ericaceae). Every year this abundant resource provides an incredible harvest offering foraging opportunities for animals and people alike. The BEST time to pick huckleberries is from mid-June through late-August. However, berries are often found in abundance clear into October.
Where to Find Huckleberries
Huckleberries are found all over the forested northwest. Idaho, Washington, Montana, Oregon, and Wyoming are known for producing the majority of the country’s huckleberries. The berries are nearly impossible to grow commercially, so those seeking to enjoy them must venture into the mountains.
Huckleberries are most prolific between elevations of 4,000 and 6,000 feet. However, they are known to grow at elevations as low as 2,000 feet and as high as 10,000 feet. Experienced huckleberry pickers closely monitor the ripening of the berries and follow their “movements.”
The first areas to produce berries are the south-facing, low elevations. Naturally, these areas see the most sunshine and are first to provide a harvest. After long days of sun and heat, the berries in the lower elevations and south-facing hillsides will begin to wither. As this happens, the neighboring berries get their cue to start growing.
Higher elevations stay cooler longer and, therefore, will produce their fruit later into the season. East and west-facing hillsides see less daylight than the south-facing ones. Thus, the fruit will be a little slower to come in. Understanding these patterns will help you know where to look for purple gold.
As you are looking for huckleberries, focus on logging roads and OLD burn sites. These areas provide abundant sunshine and are not “choked out” by undergrowth. Huckleberry bushes take many years to reach full production, so be sure to avoid using aggressive commercial hand tools that rip their way through these bushes to strip them of their berries (and leaves).
To properly identify a huckleberry, first look at the bush. The huckleberry bush should be between one and five feet tall. Huckleberries grow somewhat spaced-out on the bush. If you find clusters of berries, it is not a huckleberry bush. The leaves grow up to one and a half inches long, are oval in shape, and smooth.
The huckleberry colors range between dark purple and red. For those who want a tarter berry, the red berries are for you. The dark purple berries are perfect for the person who prefers the traditional combination of sweetness and tartness. To verify that the berry is, in fact, a huckleberry, look for the “pock” mark on the bottom. This characteristic is very unique to the huckleberry. Also, the top of the berry does not have a “bushy” stem. The huckleberry stem makes a clean and uniform connection to the berry.
Join the Purple Gold Rush!
As a reminder, never forget that you are not the only thing on the mountain that enjoys delicious huckleberries. Bears are commonly found fattening themselves in a dense huckleberry thicket. Don’t be afraid to make a little noise in the areas that you plan to pick berries (kids are helpful for that). Bears really have no interest in sharing the berry bushes with you and will usually depart upon first detecting your presence. As an additional measure of caution, carry some bear spray or a 44-mag revolver.
If you have never been huckleberry picking, venture out this summer. Berry picking is just another excuse to get out and enjoy this beautiful corner of our country. While it may take a while to fill your container, abundant wildlife and serene beauty will accompany you throughout your journey.
You should know that experienced huckleberry pickers are more likely to give you their social security number than disclose their favorite berry picking locations. I have been married for 11 years and I still won’t tell my wife where I go.