Each year beginning in late summer, hopeful foragers travel deep into the mountains for the chance of finding a hidden trove of huckleberry bushes growing along the slopes. In the berry hunting world, sourcing huckleberry is akin to finding treasure.
Because huckleberry thrives in infertile, acidic soils well above sea level, it can only be found in the wilderness. Efforts to domesticate huckleberry have proved elusive – it may take several years for the plants to bear fruit, and when they do, they don’t have quite the same taste as their wild brethren.
Huckleberry’s resistance to home and commercial cultivation makes the pursuit of this fruit an adventure unto itself. If you’re on the hunt for elderberries, blackberries, or other edible wild plants this season, be sure to keep an eye out for the rare and delectable huckleberry.
How To Identify Huckleberry
Closely related to blueberries and cranberries, huckleberry – also known as bilberry, whortleberry, or hurtleberry – is found throughout North America in sub-alpine regions along the eastern and western coasts.
Similar in appearance to blueberry bushes, huckleberry plants have a shrub-like habit that usually grow to a height of 2 to 3 feet in full sun but can extend to 10 feet or more in shaded areas. The glossy green leaves are simple and oblong, measuring 1 to 1 ½ inches in length. In early spring, huckleberry bushes bear tiny red, white, pink, or green flowers that typically grow in clusters. Depending on the species, huckleberry fruits may be red, blue, purple, or black in color, measuring a ½ inch across, with each berry containing 10 small seeds.
Though huckleberries can be difficult to distinguish from blueberries, they tend to be smaller in size than blueberries, with intense flavors that are both tart and sweet. For help identifying different huckleberry species, check out this excellent field guide.
Where To Find Wild Huckleberry
Huckleberry is part of the Ericaceae family, with two distinct genera: Vaccinium in the west and Gaylussacia in the east:
Whortleberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) – The native range of whortleberry spans British Columbia and Alberta, and southwards through Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. Found in abundance along the Rocky Mountains, it grows in forests, hillsides, hummocky terrain, and moraines in mid to high elevations from 3,000 to 13,000 feet.
Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) – Found as far north as Alaska, red huckleberry hugs the west coast, from British Columbia down to Washington, Oregon, and California. Adaptable to sun or shade, it can be found in conifer forests, along roadsides, in lowlands, mountain valleys, alder flats, river terraces, and lower mountain slopes. It is not uncommon to find red huckleberry growing on mossy, rotten logs or stumps.
California Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) – Growing on dry slopes, in canyons, and along barren ridges of the Pacific Coast, it forms in dense thickets in California’s fog belt. California huckleberry can also be found in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, in steep slopes facing the ocean.
Black Huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata) – Occupying a large swath of the eastern portion of North America, black huckleberry ranges from the Great Lakes region, the Appalachian Mountains, and the Atlantic Coast, extending to Georgia and as far west as Iowa. Black huckleberry prefers open sites in rocky pastures, dunes, bluffs, steep slopes, bogs, and thickets, at elevations between 200 and 4,000 feet.
Dwarf Huckleberry (Gaylussacia dumosa) – Dwarf huckleberry resides in the coastal regions of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia south to Florida and as far west as Louisiana. A low-growing shrub, it is commonly found in pine forests and pine barrens, as well as the edges of bogs and bays.
Blue Huckleberry (Gaylussacia frondosa) – From New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire south along the Atlantic Coast to South Carolina, blue huckleberry can also be found westward in Ohio, Tennessee, and Mississippi. You can find blue huckleberry in dry and moist wooded areas, especially pine flatwoods, and it tends to cohabitate with dwarf huckleberries and black huckleberries.
How To Harvest Huckleberries
Because huckleberries don’t continue to ripen after being plucked off the plant, only harvest them when fully mature. Ripe huckleberries will be slightly soft when squeezed, have a deep color, and will be dull, not shiny. Unripe huckleberries are quite tart while ripe ones are sweet.
Huckleberries can be picked by hand, one at a time, to prevent damaging the bush. Or, invest in a berry rake like this one which will help speed up harvesting time and won’t harm the plant or the fruit.
Once collected, place your haul – berries, leaves, twigs, and all – into a large bowl and top with cool water. The plant debris will rise to the top to be easily scooped out. Rinse huckleberries in a colander, drain, and let them dry completely.
Use them right away or freeze them for later use. To prevent the berries from sticking together, place them on a cookie sheet and set in the freezer for one hour before transferring them to a container.
Health Benefits Of Wild Huckleberry
According to Herbal Medicine: Bimolecular and Clinical Aspects, anthocyanins from fresh huckleberry fruit are absorbed quickly, finding their way to various organs (like the brain, liver, eyes, lungs, and kidneys) just one hour after consumption. Studies on huckleberry have revealed some of the berry’s healthful effects:
- Improve vision, including night vision
- Protect cells from free radicals
- Protect DNA from damage
- Has anticancer properties
- Promotes good cardiovascular health
- Reduces inflammation
- Improves symptoms of diabetes
- Preserves brain function and boosts short-term memory
8 Ways To Use Huckleberries
You can substitute huckleberries in any blueberry recipe you love – use them in pancakes, muffins, fruit salads, tarts, crumbles, and other sweet treats. Just be sure to use somewhat less sugar since huckleberries are sweeter than blueberries.
1. Wild Huckleberry Jam
Yielding 10 half pint jars, this quick and simple jam recipe calls for 4 cups of huckleberries, 5 cups of sugar, 1 ¼ cups of water, and 3 ounces of liquid pectin.
Recipe from Genius Kitchen.
2. Huckleberry Cheese Pie
This take on cheese cake is made with a butter crunch crust, an inner layer of cream cheese, and topped with two cups of huckleberries.
Recipe from Taste of Home.
3. Huckleberry Vinaigrette
Top your next salad with this dressing, a combination of raw honey, red wine vinegar, olive oil, fresh huckleberries, and a pinch of salt.
Recipe from Purely Primal.
4. Wild Huckleberry Sauce
A versatile concentrate, this huckleberry sauce can be used as a topping for cakes and ice cream, or as a flavor shot for black tea, iced tea and smoothies.
Recipe from Northwest Wild Foods.
5. Huckleberry Ice Cream
Recipe from Country Living.
6. Huckleberry Wine
Because huckleberries strike a nice balance between tart and sweet, you can use them for making fruit wines at home.
Recipe from E.C. Kraus.
7. Huckleberry Soup
The base of this soup is composed of huckleberries, water, lemon rind, and salt. Serve it cold and finish with a sour cream topping made from cottage cheese and lemon juice.
Recipe from Big Oven.
8. Wild Huckleberry Preserves
Preserve whole huckleberries and extend their shelf life for up to one year by processing them using the water bath canning method.
Recipe from All Recipes.