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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Wild huckleberry nearly tamed

Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer

After a century without success, researchers say they are now within three to five years of domesticating the wild huckleberry.

“It’s coming along very well,” said University of Idaho horticulture professor Dan Barney, head of the UI Sandpoint Research and Extension Center. “We have a number of plants that have produced very well indeed here at our research station.”

The huckleberry is Idaho’s state fruit, and its wildness is part of its mystique – the succulent berries won’t grow just anywhere, and attempts to transplant them almost always end in failure.

But interest in the berries has grown over the years to the point that giant processors are looking for huge quantities of the huckleberries – more than the remote forest stands can produce. At the same time, access to wild huckleberry patches is decreasing, due to everything from development pressure to closures for endangered species to extra-hot forest fires that kill the hardy, sometimes century-old plants.

“We are actually losing colonies,” Barney said. “We’re trying to protect the resource that’s there for the recreational picker. … For the big producers, the Wal-Marts if you will, we’d kind of like to get them out of the woods, get them a reliable, reasonably priced product … without over-harvesting and damaging the wild population.”

It’s not an idea with much appeal to Betty Bingman, whose Seven Lazy H Enterprises in Cascade, Idaho, has been producing and selling huckleberry jam, syrup and bread mixes to a small array of enthusiastic customers for the past 15 years.

“I just would prefer they didn’t do that to our industry,” Bingman said, sighing. “The wild ones are – they’re unique. We had a neighbor lady that tried to transplant ‘em into her own garden. She got the bushes to grow, but they never would have fruit. … I just, I don’t wish him much success.”

Bingman makes her jam with whole huckleberries, in a single batch every time, following her grandmother’s recipe. “We get a lot of calls from basket-gift makers. We do three Christmas shows a year. My husband and I, we’re it; we’re the business,” she said. “Once in a while we call in the kids if we get in a real bind.”

Bingman’s business is one of many built on the appeal and uniqueness of the wild huckleberry, and Barney said that won’t end with domestication of the plant. “There will always be a niche market for the fruit coming out of the wild,” he said. “That gives marketers a very special advantage.”

But last year, one processor was nosing around North Idaho looking for a million pounds of huckleberries – more than was available from the wild.

“It was rather hush-hush,” he said. “I had the feeling that these were destined for an overseas market.”

The tale is reminiscent of what happened with the blueberry, which was domesticated nearly 100 years ago. At the time, many worried that the plump, exotic wild blueberry would lose its appeal if it could be cultivated. Instead, it turned into a multibillion-dollar industry, based in the United States. Blueberries remain popular and sought-after around the world.

Barney said he’s not crossing blueberries with his huckleberries in his research. “What’s coming out of our program in the huckleberry strains are pure huckleberries,” he said. “We could get much better yield, but what we would prefer is to keep that wild huckleberry flavor and mystique.”

He added, “We will never compete in volume with the blueberries, but what we can do every time is beat them on flavor.”

Domesticated plants are heading out to test plots around the Northwest. Barney said that within three to five years, he expects the most suitable strains to be patented by the University of Idaho Research Foundation and sold to commercial nurseries for sale to the public.

That doesn’t mean people can’t try to grow their own huckleberries now – they’ve been trying for a century, despite continued setbacks. Three Northwest nurseries, including Plants of the Wild in Tekoa, Wash., stock huckleberry seedlings grown from seeds gathered in the wild, and there’s plenty of interest.

“We can’t keep them in stock – everybody wants to try ‘em and wants to try different things and make it work,” said Carrie Garcia, assistant manager. However, she said, “The feedback we have had is mostly negative. The plants are so slow-growing that it’s hard to see results very quickly.”

Barney said, “Growing them from seed is actually quite easy. The downside is very few huckleberry plants really produce what you’re looking for.”

In his research, he’s gone through tens of thousands of seedlings to find four or five that actually produce lots of good fruit and have other desirable traits. Then, the challenge is to reproduce them.

“The propagation is the hard part on this,” he said. “They don’t really like to propagate.”

There’s no easy way around that. “What most people have tried to do over the last century here is they’ll find a great bush out in the wild, and they’ll dig it up and transplant it to their yard,” Barney said, “and it’ll promptly die over one or two years. What they thought was a bush is really a branch.”

The plant’s stem, called a rhizome, grows underground, making transplanting difficult.

When planting the current nursery stock, people have a chance – possibly about four or five in 10,000 to 15,000, judging by Barney’s research – of getting a good producer. If they do, they’ve hit the huckleberry jackpot. Those odds will ease in the future if the research goes as expected.

For now, the best way to find huckleberries is still to search out those secret places where the best plants grow. They can be found as low in elevation as 2,000 feet, and the picking season will likely begin in about two weeks, Barney said, and continue into the fall. “At higher and higher elevations it ripens later,” he said.

Bingman said she has “mixed feelings.” After all, she said, “If everybody starts growing them, then why would they be unique?”

But Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, who recently returned from a trade mission to Asia that included promoting Idaho food products, has no qualms about Idaho’s state fruit becoming more widely available. As his spokesman, Mike Journee, said, “Huckleberries are great.”