Montana Public Radio

Huckleberries, Montana's Little Icons, Retain Their Mysteries

Aug 17, 2020

Braving horseflies the size of quarters and the searing afternoon sun, I ramble on a steep hillside like a bear, gorging for her long winter's nap. What could inspire such action? Huckleberries, of course. A recent trip to Glacier Park proved I wasn't alone in my obsession.

Signs lured me with the promises of huckleberry syrups, jams, jellies, pie, ice cream and even huckleberry lotion -  although it mystifies me why you'd want to waste such a delicacy on something inedible. The sweet rewards of a huckleberry can only be truly appreciated by those who've diligently cleaned out a patch.

Huckleberries grow in mountainside thickets, typically preferring moist areas with well-drained acidic soil. They become especially abundant in areas that have recently burned. The deciduous shrubs are small to medium-sized, rarely growing taller than four feet high. Their simple alternate leaves are only an inch or two long and about half as wide.

Rose-colored flowers hold the promise of the purplish blueberry that appears in late July and early August. Berries are about the size of a large garden pea with a characteristic flat bottom. Montana’s huckleberry is actually in the genus Vaccinium, which includes blueberries. Different species of huckleberries can be found throughout the northern latitudes of North America.

While a bush might have up to 50 shoots, not every shoot will produce a berry. This means you'll be collecting berries from several different bushes, blending slightly different flavors.

Indigenous Montanans preserved the berries by spreading them on rocks for days, allowing the sun to dry them for use on a cold winter evening when the days of huckleberry picking were just a warm memory. Besides the obvious benefits of such a treat, the huckleberry plant also has medicinal value. A tea made from the roots and stems was used to abate arthritis, rheumatism and heart trouble.

The huckleberry industry is now estimated to be worth several million in Montana. Domestic cultivation has floundered, however, for several reasons. First of all, no one is sure who is responsible for pollinating, although the bumblebee might be the culprit. The biggest challenge, however, would be duplicating that wonderful taste of wildness.

As you hike through the woods in late July and August, keep a watchful eye out for this tasty treat, but be sure to save some huckleberries for the bears.

"Field Notes" is produced by the Montana Natural History Center.

(Broadcast: "Field Notes,"  8/11/20 and 8/14/20. Listen weekly on the radio Tuesdays and Fridays at 4:54 p.m., or via podcast.)