Idaho is an absolutely beautiful state which is fairly well known for its production of potatoes. However, less commonly known is its deep connections with another food; a small fruit called the huckleberry.
In February of 2000, it was proposed that the huckleberry become the state fruit of Idaho. The legislation was passed by the Idaho Senate and House of Representatives in April of the same year and took effect on July 1st, 2000.
The huckleberry is a small red or purple berry native to the pacific northwest. It is a distant wild cousin of the blueberry and thought to be sweeter than a cranberry. An average huckleberry bush can grow from one foot to six feet tall and will produce berries that can grow up to a plump ½ inch in diameter. The huckleberry is native to the mountains in northern Idaho. They grow at elevations of 2,000 to 11,000 feet with the most successful species being found between 4- and 6,000 feet. Also local to the same mountains are grizzly and black bears who love to feast on these tasty little berries. In fact, about a third of a bear’s diet could consist of the huckleberry while it’s in season. Other animals such as local birds and deer also like to use this carb-heavy berry as a major part of their diet. The dark purple color, which is most common in Idaho, is very enticing to animal and human consumers alike.
The history of the huckleberry in Idaho can be traced back to as early as the 17th century. Lewis and Clark would occasionally mention the huckleberry in their journals. It was a great food source for them on their journey. The local native American tribes also relied on the huckleberry for food. They made their own special combs that were designed to strip the huckleberries off of the bush, then they would dry them and prepare them for proper storage.
Today, in northern Idaho, the huckleberry is often celebrated. For example, in the town of Donnelly, during the second weekend of August every year, there is a Huckleberry Festival. This local festival includes craft vendors, food vendors, a 5K “Huckleberry Trot”, live music, and of course, lots and lots of huckleberries. This tasty fruit gives the people in communities like this an excuse to come together, celebrate, and enjoy each other’s company. Huckleberries are only found in the wild. Many people have tried to grow them domestically and commercially, but no one has been successful to this point.
If you want your own fresh huckleberries, you have to head to the hills yourself. There are some tricks to gathering a large amount of these delicious coveted berries. Even knowing these tricks, though, huckleberry hunting can still be difficult. Lots of sunlight is key in their abundant growth, so you need to check the south-facing slopes first, which are prime by mid-June. The north side of the slopes can host good pickable berries as late as October. The prime season for huckleberry picking, though, is late July and early August. With such a small window, you have to know what you’re looking for. You can find huckleberries popular in areas that have recently been burned down, because of the bigger exposure to sunlight, but you can also find different species of the huckleberry tucked in the underbrush of the forest surrounded by fur and pine trees. One expert berry picker suggests you make sure you’re searching under the leaves of the huckleberry bushes because that’s where they grow the most. It is common for those that are able to find enough berries to can stock some in the freezer and ration them, so the tasty things are available all year round.
If you want to pick the delicious “purple gold” yourself but you don’t have the confidence to go out yourself, have no fear. There are several places in northern Idaho that will take groups out to some known hot spots to find the huckleberries. For example, starting in late July and going until the berries are gone, you can go to Schweitzer Mountain, bring your own bucket and join a group on the Schweitzer Huckleberry Shuttle. This shuttle will lead you right to great picking places and let you forage at your leisure, then take you back to the village bus stop. This provides a great opportunity for amateur foragers to learn more about the berries and hone their berry-finding skills.
One particular shop in Idaho has the gathering skills down so well they have made their livelihood based on huckleberries. In the town of Victor, considered the huckleberry capital of Idaho, there is a little place called the Victor Emporium. They are a fishing shop and souvenir store, but they are most known for their famous huckleberry milkshakes. They hire a massive number of people of all ages as professional foragers. Together these foragers can pick enough huckleberries to freeze and last them all year long, even with their high demand of huckleberry milkshakes. All the berries are locally picked, and they have been known to stash over 1,700 pounds of huckleberries in the freezer. The skills of their foragers are so impressive that even the owners don’t ask where they go or how they do it. They keep it under wraps, so their secrets don’t get exposed. That way they can have all the berries they need, and they remain a novelty in the area.
As you can tell, the supple huckleberry and the state of Idaho have a rich history and relationship that will withstand the test of time. This delicious berry is only found in the wild and is considered to be a main attraction in northern Idaho. The huckleberry provides so much importance in the state that it was even declared the state fruit of Idaho and remains so still 18 years later. You can find huckleberry milkshakes or forage for your own huckleberries in the wild. You can’t visit northern Idaho without trying something huckleberry flavored or visiting a huckleberry festival.