The scent is strong and yet the lips are sealed. It’s huckleberry season in Idaho County and though our neighbors are friendly yearlong, when it comes to the hot-spots for the purple treats, you will often meet silence.
Hands holding buckets disappear quickly into the woods and the human ear can’t hear even a whisper. Huckleberry pickers are out for their gold, on a claim all their own.
The elusive huckleberry can often hide itself well and some years too hot of weather, too much rain, too cold of temperatures, not enough rain or even forest fires can cause scarcity.
Berries ripen in the Grangeville hills anywhere from July through September, depending on the year. Just past Fish Creek and all the way up to The Gospels, many pickers can be seen bringing in generous portions of the much-sought-after purple and reddish berries.
Kid pickers often bring their berries home in spill-proof containers — their tummies.
Huckleberries have become an Idaho delicacy, bringing anywhere from $40 to $90 a gallon to those who are willing to pick them to sell. A jar of jam in the local drugstore can cost between $6 and $8, and chocolate-covered huckleberries cost 50 cents each at the grocery store. Of course, huckleberries are also good for pies and in a syrup over pancakes, or, as most young pickers will agree, just to eat straight off the bush.
Though the tart purple treats may be somewhat elusive to the untrained eye and those who don’t often pick, the abundance of berries this year looks like enough for everyone. Be sure to look at the underside of bushes for those big berries hiding there.
Remember, though, huckleberry etiquette means you’ll have to find your own place to reap your fruit. If you see some pickers, respect their spot and find your own.
Huckleberries grow in the mountain areas where they are kept cool by trees and overgrowth. An even mixture of rain and sun seem to be good for huckleberry bushes, allowing them to grow plump, juicy berries.
Did You Know?
Evidence has been found the huckleberry actually got its name from a simple mistake. Early American colonists, upon encountering the native berry, misidentified it as the European blueberry known as the "hurtleberry," by which name it was called until around 1670 it was corrupted to become know as the "huckleberry."
The expression "I'll be your Huckleberry" means just the right person for a given job, and it also means a mark of affection or comradeship to one's partner or sidekick. Doc Holliday said it in the movie “Tombstone” and Toby Keith sings it in his song “Huckleberry.”
The term can also mean somebody inconsequential. Mark Twain borrowed aspects of this meaning to name his famous character, Huckleberry Finn. His idea, as he told an interviewer in 1895, was to establish that he was a boy "of lower extraction or degree" than Tom Sawyer. However, some stories give credence to the possibility that Twain had a friend, Benjamin Finn, who loved huckleberries and he thus named the character for him.
Huckleberries are the Idaho State Fruit and can be found the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest. Several huckleberry species of huckleberry are native to Idaho (all belonging to genus Vaccinium, section Myrtillus). The most common and popular is the black or thin-leaved huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum). Black huckleberries usually grow from one to six feet tall (taking up to 15 years to reach full maturity) with berries up to 1/2 inch in diameter. Black huckleberries produce single plump, dark purple berries in the axils of leaves on new shoots.
A favorite food of bears, huckleberries grow at elevations between 2,000 and 11,000 feet. They depend on an insulating cover of snow for survival during the winter and have not been successfully grown commercially. The berry is also a food source for deer, birds, rodents and insects.
Huckleberries are often confused with the blueberry due to their close resemblance. The flavor is more tart than blueberries, with an intense wild flavor. Huckleberry season is normally from June through August.