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For The Love Of Huckleberries: August Brings Out Hunters Of Elusive Fruit

Starting in late summer, national forests in Northwestern states like Oregon, Washington, Montana, and Idaho fill with eager berry hunters hoping to find a cache of dark maroon huckleberries. It's common for demand to exceed supply, leading to conflicts between Native Americans who have certain reserved picking areas, commercial pickers, and families hoping to continue their summer traditions.

Related to both blueberries and cranberries, the fruit is so juicy that it has to be dried, processed, or eaten soon after picking which makes huckleberry season feel especially fleeting, when it often only lasts from August through September. They were once a major food for local Native Americans like the Yakama, who helped huckleberry crops flourish through an annual burning at the picking grounds, and even sometimes moved to stay close to prime picking locations.

Throughout history, finding and picking huckleberries has been hard work, yet for people who love them, the effort is worth it.

Of all the products that can be foraged in Washington's Gifford Pinchot National Forest, huckleberries get the most attention, says forester Chris Starling.

To avoid scuffles or people going home with empty berry baskets, forest management in the most popular huckleberrying grounds sometimes has to consider cutting down trees to make room for more huckleberry plants. Like many who live in huckleberry country, Starling has been picking the berries his entire life, and it turns a simple walk in the woods into so much more.

"You're out there for a good reason other than just to get to a certain point," Starling says. "It's a relaxing mission — and a tasty one." The berries themselves taste like a tart blueberry that will stain pickers fingers and clothes with their red flesh.

Though many families have been huckleberry hunting for years, Starling and other forest employees regularly educate newcomers on where the best huckleberry patches might be, how to pick them, and — importantly — which areas to avoid.

Since 1932, an area of the Sawtooth Berry Fields has been reserved for use by Native Americans, thanks to an agreement between Yakama Indian Chief William Yallup and the Gifford Pinchot Forest supervisor. Making sure huckleberry pickers follow best practices is important for the tribes — and for next year's huckleberry foragers, too. Most forests require a permit and limit the amount of berries a person can take home. Some rules also specify that berries be picked by hand, since equipment like berry rakes can damage the plants.

To continue having enough berries to go around, the forest management conducts periodical environmental assessments to find out how many huckleberries can be picked sustainably, says Joe Gates, the vegetation program manager for Gifford. But thanks to the popularity of huckleberries, Gates explains, "conflict is prevalent."

A love of huckleberries — combined with their scarcity — has created a decades-long effort to produce the berry commercially. In the wild, the berries are hearty and were among the plants to survive the Mt. St. Helens eruption in 1980. A University of Idaho researcher named Dan Barney spent over two decades attempting to create a domesticated huckleberry that would reliably produce delicious fruit at home. He retired without accomplishing his mission. People started trying to domesticate the blueberry in 1906, Barney told The Oregonian before his retirement. "So we're behind on the development of a domesticated huckleberry crop. But call me back in 100 years and we'll be in really good shape."

Joe Culbreth relied on Barney's expertise to help him start a huckleberry crop at his Berry & Nut Farm. Culbreth loves huckleberries and has been picking them for decades. but reached an age where it was hard to get into the forest reliably to forage for himself.

"I figured in my old days I could just set [up] my wheelchair and roll down the row and pick huckleberries," he says. He planted hundreds of huckleberries and proceeded to wait — for a very long time. "On the seventh year I got my first berries, and not many people are going to plant something and see no return for seven years," he says.

The second year that his plants produced berries, he managed to get enough from his few hundred plants to make a "nice pie." Though they're definitely huckleberries, he hasn't achieved the "true huckleberry taste" — which he says he can't describe but will know when he tastes it.

All this effort doesn't exactly make the huckleberry ripe for commercial production. Yet it would be a jackpot for any horticulturist that managed it — in the wild, there simply aren't enough berries to go around.

"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.

Until then, foragers will have to keep waiting until August to drive up to the mountains and pick huckleberries for themselves. And Culbreth will continue to try bringing his dreams of a home-grown huckleberry to life.

When asked why huckleberries are worth all this trouble, Culbreth laughed. "I don't know," he says. "But once you've eaten huckleberries in pancakes or cakes, you're hooked."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tove Danovich