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It's Time for Huckleberries!

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Idaho's sweet fruit is only found on The Game Trail

Summer is flying by like an out-of-control freight train! The kids will be back in school in less than month so I hope you put something on the calendar to get them out camping, hiking, fishing, huckleberry picking or something. I just took a few days off and brought the family to Jordan Camp for a little rest and relaxation. Well, y’all know camping with a 5- and 7-year-old is not really relaxing but it was fun none the less. Fishing was a little slow in the afternoon heat but I was able to trick a  few cutthroat into taking my fly in the mornings and late evenings.   We topped the nights off with some dutch oven cooking around the campfire, can’t beat that kind of fun. I hope I enticed you into taking the kids for one last trip before they get into the school grind.

On the way home we found some of Idaho’s state fruit ripening up! Idaho has a state flower, a state horse, a state bird, a state fish, a state flag, and now a state fruit. So designated by the Idaho Legislature in 2000, it is the huckleberry. 

At this time of year, it is not too surprising that the huckleberry is the state fruit. Just about everybody in northern Idaho looks forward to huckleberry picking. Huckleberries freeze well and can provide a very healthy addition to your table or to your breakfast smoothie all year long.

There are several species of huckleberries native to Idaho. The most common and most popular is the “Black,” or “Thin-Leaved” Huckleberry. Some plant guides, including Common Plants of the Inland Pacific Northwest, a guide written by highly respected and widely recognized Plant Ecologist Dr. Charles Johnson, call the species “Big Huckleberry.”  

This species grows in moist, cool, forested environments at mid to upper elevations. Berries are purple to purplish red and are a quarter to half  inch broad depending upon the year and the site.  The plants grow up to three feet tall and take up to 15 years to reach full maturity.  The single, dark purple berries grow on the shoots the plant produced that year.

Grouse Huckleberry is another species found in Idaho. This plant tends to grow at higher elevations than Big Huckleberry but the two can be found growing in the same sites. The Grouse Huckleberry plants are smaller in size, growing only about 10 inches tall.  The berries are smaller  (1/5 inch broad) and more red in color. 

An internet search says that huckleberries grow at elevations between 2,000 feet and 11,000 feet. However, I don’t know of any place in northern Idaho where they grow and produce berries under 2,400 feet in elevation. Snow cover is needed to insulate the plants to survive during the winter, so perhaps plants below 3,000 feet die in those winters where there are cold temperatures but little snow to insulate them.  

There is another plant that resembles Big Huckleberry but does not produce an edible fruit. I talked to a tourist up Trestle Creek the other day and they were so excited they found the motherlode of huckleberry bushes that they were making a waypoint on their GPS. I hated to inform them they were wasting their time because there wouldn’t be any berries on the Fool’s Huckleberry plant.   

As most people in northern Idaho know, huckleberries are delicious favorites of both people and bears.  Bears in northern Idaho eat not only the berries, but in the spring they also utilize the flowers, leaves and stems according to Dr. John Beecham, retired IDFG Wildlife Biologist in his book, A Shadow in the Forest- Idaho’s Black Bear.  In fact, a poor huckleberry crop in the Priest Lake area in 1979 resulted in decreased bear productivity and survival for two years, according to Beecham. 

Black bears have what are called ‘prehensile lips.”  They can use these well-coordinated and flexible lips to pick individual huckleberries faster than any person can pick with their hands. Yet they seldom get any leaves. Because bears love huckleberries and make them a major source of summer and fall nourishment, humans who pick huckleberries should always carry bear spray. It is not uncommon to have a chance encounter with a bear out and about to eat the same berries you came for.  

Before I sign off here I want to remind those big game hunters out there who were lucky enough to draw a controlled hunt, you have only until August 1 to purchase your tags. Any tags not purchased by that date will be forfeited.   So make sure you get in there and purchase that controlled hunt or you will be disappointed this fall! 

Enjoy the berry picking out there and make sure you leave the place better than you found it.

Leave No Child Inside.

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Author info

Matt Haag Matt Haag is an Idaho Fish and Game Conservation Officer.

Tagged as:

bears, huckleberries, The Game Trail, Big Huckleberry, A Shadow in the Forest- Idahos Black Bear, Dr John Beecham, Black huckleberry, thin-leaved huckleberry, Dr Charles Johnson, Grouse Huckleberry, Common Plants of the Inland Pacific Northwest

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