Horticulturist Dan Barney wants to tame the huckleberry for a life of tidy cultivation while preserving that intense flavor people hike miles for.
“We’re working with a problem child,” Barney says of the stubbornly wild berry that grows best from 3,000 to 6,000 feet in Idaho mountains. “It does not have good horticultural characteristics. But it does have superior flavor.”
Planted at low elevation, Idaho’s thin-leafed huckleberry often breaks dormancy in midwinter thaws, then freezes to the ground in cold snaps.
“It’s crazy,” says Barney, superintendent of the University of Idaho Research and Extension Center in Sandpoint. “Here’s a plant that grows where the temperature reaches 50 below, but it freezes at lower elevations without snow cover.”
This summer Barney plans to comb the Oregon and Washington Cascades and Vancouver Island in British Columbia for huckleberries whose strong suits he will pair with the thin-leaf’s in planned hybridizations.
Despite gritty, easily rotting berries, for example, the oval-leafed huckleberry has cultivation-friendly traits such as adaptability to low elevations and compact roots rather than spreading rhizomes. The Cascade blue huckleberry has fine flavor in a blue berry.
“We’re trying to bring the good characteristics of all these species together in a hybrid,” Barney says. “We’re looking to get good fruit quality in a well-behaved plant.”
Barney also aims to produce huckleberry-blueberry hybrids with collaborator Chad Finn, small fruit breeder at the Northwest Center for Small Fruit Research in Corvallis, Ore. With fruit smacking of huckleberries, the plants would thrive under cultivation like blueberries.
Blueberries in Oregon yield 6 to 8 tons of berries per acre, says Finn, vs. a stingy 800 to 1,000 pounds for huckleberries in the wild.
At Plants of the Wild in Tekoa, Wash., manager Kathy Hutton predicts a huge demand for cultivated huckleberries. Although her greenhouse-grown huckleberries fare well in wildland plantings near their high-elevation seed sources, they tend to fail when planted farther afield.
“We planted a few out here just messing around. They’ll live a few years, produce a little fruit, then die out.”
Cultivated huckleberries would likely prosper from sea level to 2,000 or 3,000 feet in northern and central Idaho and in parts of southeastern Idaho, Barney says. Demanding soils rich in organic matter, the plants prefer partial shade and may need the companionship of a certain soil fungus.
At Sandpoint’s Gem Berry Products Inc., Harry Menser uses huckleberries that cost up to $16 per gallon - more than three times the cost of cultivated blueberries.
“The problem with huckleberries is each year the supply may differ because it’s a wild commodity,” he says. “This past two to three years there’s been an adequate supply, but the price has been very high.”
While cultivation could produce predictable supplies of lower-priced berries, Menser wonders if it might detract from the huckleberry mystique.
“They’re wild, they come from the mountains; there’s a mystique about them,” says Menser.
In addition, some customers value huckleberries as a natural food grown without chemicals.
At Homemade by Dorothy in Boise, Cini Baumhoff says that while “wildness is part and parcel of the whole package,” she wouldn’t necessarily spurn a cultivated berry.
“We’d use it under another name. I think it would be great if someone could cultivate them if they could come out with the same flavor.”
That’s something Barney hopes to ensure through painstaking attention to flavor. Cooperator John Fellman, a flavor chemist at Washington State University, so far has identified in huckleberries seven major “flavor volatiles” - molecules that stimulate the nostrils when food is chewed.
In the common Bluecrop blueberry, Fellman found just four major flavor volatiles.
“From a processing standpoint, more is better,” Fellman says, since processing weakens flavor.
Eventually, panels run by University of Idaho sensory scientist John Thorngate will attempt to pinpoint which flavor volatiles at which concentrations make that heady huckleberry taste. Barney hopes to use the findings for identifying the best-tasting hybrids in his breeding program.
In the meantime, forester Andy Anding at the Idaho Panhandle National Forests says the forest huckleberry supply is ample, if you don’t mind a hike.
“I’ve heard a lot of people talk about a road being closed to their favorite huckleberry area.”
A much-discussed “ecosystem” approach to forest management might even increase huckleberry supply by creating more of the once-widespread open forests huckleberries prefer.
Still, Anding welcomes the coming of a cultivated huckleberry.
“My family collected a gallon last summer and decided it was too much work.”
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