What is a Huckleberry?
What is a huckleberry?
A huckleberry is a common name for small wild berries that sometimes look like blueberries. The word huckleberry appears to be an American word derived originally from “hurtle-berry,” a corruption of the Saxon heart-berg or “the hart’s berry.”
Huckleberries range from deep red to purple in color. There’s a ton of range of taste, habitat and appearance because there are over 30 species in North America that people generally refer to as huckleberries. Out of the 7 species that occur in Montana, only two are commonly found in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem! To complicate things even further, many of these species classifications are in dispute. The Globe Huckleberry (Vaccinium globulare) and Mountain Huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum) are considered the same species by the USDA.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on the mountain huckleberry, which if you’re harvesting huckleberries in Montana or purchasing huckleberry products, that’s what you’re probably dealing with!
Where do huckleberries grow?
The mountain huckleberry plant, or big huckleberry, occupies the mountainous forests of the Pacific Northwest and even into South Dakota and parts of upper Michigan. In Montana, they can occur on a variety of elevations in forests with about 50% tree cover, according to Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks. They tend to occur from about 3,000 ft to about 7,500 ft in areas that have been disturbed. You can also find them thriving in old burn zones, like 20 - 50-year-old burns, ski runs, old clear cuts, and other disturbed partially-forested areas. The mountain huckleberry is a successional plant species, meaning that it likes to come in after a natural or human disturbance to the forest that opens up the canopy to allow more sunlight to reach the forest floor.
The best region for huckleberry picking in Montana is indisputably in the northwest near Glacier National Park. But you can discover huckleberries all across western Montana - it’s kind of like finding good fishing spots or hunting spots - you’re just going to have to get out and explore for yourself!
How to identify a mountain huckleberry in the wild
The mountain huckleberry is a low bush with alternating smooth oval-shaped leaves. The berries are usually individual, meaning they don’t occur in clusters like a blueberry plant. The flowers bloom from May - July and the berries follow from late July to early September. If you smash a berry in your hand, it will bleed purple and the flesh will be purple too. Remember that blueberries are usually whitish on the inside. Visit our Huckleberries vs. Blueberries blog to learn more about their differences!
One common plant that folks often mistake for huckleberry is the serviceberry. Luckily these berries are edible too, though not as flavorful as our beloved hucks! Serviceberries are usually taller bushes, 4 -10 feet tall, the berries grow in clusters of four or five, and the oval leaves are serrated, while the huckleberry leaves are ovals and smooth!
Diagram of a mountain huckleberry plant. Notice the alternating leaf structure along the stem, and that the berries occur individually.
Remember: When foraging for any foods in the wild, it is always helpful and safer to go out with someone who knows how to identify the plants! But once you know a huckleberry, you’ll never forget it! Also, plenty of other animals, including grizzly bears and black bears, rely on huckleberries as a seasonal staple, so be sure to stay alert, carry bear spray, and make noise while you’re on the hunt!
What states do huckleberries grow in?
The mountain huckleberry plant can be found in most of the western United States, including Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, South Dakota, and even parts of northern Michigan and Minnesota!
What does a huckleberry taste like?
What does a huckleberry taste like? Well, it really depends on the plant and ripeness of the fruit. The tastes range from tart in the red berries to sweet in the more purple berries. Huckleberries often have small hard seeds that can add bitterness to them as well. These seeds are safe to eat and don’t need to be removed or anything like that.
Are huckleberries good for you?
Similar to their blueberry cousins, huckleberries are rich in antioxidants and vitamin C which strengthens the immune system. Vitamin C helps with your body’s production of collagen. They’re also high in iron. So yes, they are delicious and great for your health!
Where can I buy huckleberries?
So what if you don’t live near these wild huckleberries? Well, there are plenty of options for you to still get your hands on these goodies. Farm stands often sell them seasonally near Glacier National Park and across the Pacific Northwest, and you can purchase them frozen online too. If you have huckleberries and want to make your own homemade huckleberry jam, check out our huckleberry jam recipe! Be prepared to drop some serious cheddar, because huckleberries go for about $50 a pound these days. Why so expensive? Well, huckleberries so far have alluded human cultivation, so the only way to get them is to harvest them by hand, making them extremely labor-intensive!
Huckleberry products for sale
Of course, you can always pick up some ready to eat huckleberry products from us! We sell pretty much anything with huckleberries involved. Huckleberry jam, pie filling, pancake syrup, taffy, huckleberry chocolate bars, coffee, even lotion! And so much more. And yes, these are authentic Montana huckleberries, wild-grown, harvested, and turned into delicious products right here in Montana!
Well, there you have it, folks. Today we learned what a huckleberry is, how to identify them, where to find them, and where to buy them! Now go out and get some huckleberries! If you have any huckleberry questions, we would love to hear from you!
Written by Zach Altman
Infographics by Averi Thompson
Last updated September 22 2020.