Wild huckleberries are a quintessential summer berry in the Pacific Northwest. They are the uncultivated cousin of the blueberry and share many of its great properties. Both the huckleberry and the blueberry belong to the genus Vaccinium and share a common resemblance. The huckleberry belongs to the taxonomic section of Myrtillus and the blueberry belongs to Cyanoccus. There are estimated to be about 20 different varieties of huckleberry in the northwest region of the United States. Most of them prefer elevations of 4,000 to 6,000 feet and can be found between July and September.
Some of the most common varieties you’ll find in the Pacific Northwest are the Wild Coastal Huckleberry, Mountain Blue Huckleberry and the Wild Red Huckleberries. The Coastal Blue Huckleberry (Vaccinium deliciosum Piper) grows on the Washington Olympic Peninsula between 1,000 and 3,000 feet of elevation in alpine meadows and sub-alpine wooded areas. The Mountain Blue Huckleberry grows at higher elevations typically between 4,000 to 8,000 ft. in the mountains of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. The Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium Smith) grows in the Cascade range and westward between the elevations of sea level and 3,300 feet.
Like its cousin the blueberry, the wild huckleberry has a sweet ripe flavor, but is accentuated by a tart acidity. Its skin is notably thicker skin and the seeds give it an almost crunchy texture. Huckleberry enthusiasts describe its flavor as earthy as and more intense than a blueberry. It can be used in exchange for blueberries in most recipes. According to Scott Staples, chef/owner of Restaurant Zoë, “Salmon and huckleberries were made for each other.” Another good reason to enjoy the bounty of the Northwest’s delights.
As legend would have it, the name Huckleberry comes from an accidentally incorrect identification by an early American colonist. The colonist erroneously assumed he had found the European blueberry, a hurtleberry. The hurtleberry name stuck until the late 1600s when a crude translation from name to written word, switched it around to its final name: the Huckleberry.
Wild huckleberries are a beneficial source of nutrients and other health compounds. They are the main source of food for various wildlife including deer, birds, rodents and the black and grizzly bears. It is estimated that up to 1/3 of a grizzly bear’s sustenance comes from huckleberries. Humans can benefit from the huckleberry’s abundant antioxidants and anti-aging properties that are said to help prevent inflammation and increase tissue strength. Huckleberries also contain a plant compound named arbutin that helps fight the bacteria that contribute to urinary tract and bladder infections. Interestingly, it’s also been found that huckleberries have a compound that lowers blood sugar levels and effectively makes the presence of natural sugars, which are found in all fruit, have a net-zero effect in huckleberry consumption.
Northwest Wild Foods huckleberries are a delicious summertime treat. You can enjoy them in a sweet dessert as a replacement for blueberries or as a savory accompaniment alongside a wild-caught salmon. The variety is abundant in our region and the health benefits are plentiful. The huckleberry is a true gem of the Pacific Northwest!
A Social History of Wild Huckleberry Harvesting in the Pacific Northwest by Rebecca T. Richard and Susan J. Alexander
Wild About Huckleberries by Catherine M. Allchin; http://seattletimes.com/pacificnw/2001/0805/taste.html
http://berrygrape.org/information-on-huckleberry-plants; Author: Danny L. Barner, Professor of Horticulture and Extension Horticulture, specializing in small fruit and ornament crops