Updated: Apr 23, 2021
If you've visited Montana for any length of time, no doubt you've found yourself inundated with options for experiencing: THE HUCKLEBERRY. It is everywhere: ice cream, jam, lotion, taffy, pastries and pie, vodka, lip gloss and well you get it... If you aren't from Montana, you must wonder - what's the big deal? But be warned, asking a local, "Isn't it just a blueberry?" no matter how innocently, is likely to end poorly. You may feel like Rip is lurking in the shadows to take you to visit the train station (help them out Yellowstone fans).
No worries, I'm here, a native Montana girl, to demystify the fanatic love folks around here have for this purple berry. I certainly feel myself an expert on this topic being that I've been snacking on this famed fruit since I was a toddler, and I even worked at the Huckleberry Patch restaurant in high school where I served plate-sized pancakes to Tom Cruise and busloads of tourists then helped Edna throw a dozen pies into the oven. At the end of a shift, there were a stack of pie pans with tidbits which had oozed out as slabs were plated for customers. I loved to grab a fork and help the dishwashers by cleaning up those pie pans. Let's just say I've consumed more than my fair share of huckleberries.
Quick facts: huckleberries are not, I repeat, they are not wild blueberries. They resemble a blueberry in shape and size, however, they are not the same plant. Here's the science -throughout North America, people use the name “huckleberry" to refer to several different plants from the Ericaceae family. Some species of huckleberries fall into the genus Gaylussacia, while others are part of the genus Vaccinium. Wild huckleberries have not successfully been cultivated as a domesticated food. I think us mountain folk love the symbolism of a berry which refuses to be tamed and planted in rows. Rather, the hunting and gathering of the berry is as rewarding as the sweet treasure in your bucket.
There are multiple species of huckleberries, with berries ranging in color from bright red to dark purple to blue. Red huckleberries tend to have a tart flavor, while purple and blue huckleberries taste sweeter. Some folks only pick the dark berries, but I like a mixture of tart and sweet berries. My Evie has turned into quite a picker, she outpaced me this summer. For some reason she learned early on to put one berry in the ice cream pail for each one she popped in her mouth. Elaina, however, refused to even take a bucket out with her this summer, but the purple stains on her fingers indicated she had found a patch or two. In addition to humans, many animals enjoy huckleberries, including bears and even my sister-in-law's dog. Because bears love the berries, it is always a good idea to strap bear spray to your belt while picking and be careful about enjoying too much peaceful solitude - surprising a bear is bad news. Berry picking, if not shared with a friend, should at least include a ballad every so often to scare off the wildlife.
Locals are not likely to tell you the location of their favorite patch. Pickers can sell their berries for $40- $80 a gallon! When I was a kid, I remember hearing stories of shootouts over a good patch. Welcome to the wild west! I do think it has been awhile since there was a huckleberry-picking related death. That being said, you can find them easily on the Danny On Trail at Whitefish Mountain and throughout the Flathead National forests. I'm not giving out my favorite picking spot either, sorry this isn't the Tattler here but I will give ya'll this major clue: huckleberries are often found growing in the under-story of native Larch trees. The biggest berries are to be found in areas of partial shade. For example, one of my favorite places to pick was devastated by forest fires; the berries have regrown but without the shade of the trees, the berries shrivel up to nothing.
Serious pickers cut an opening in gallon milk jug s and thread them around their belts. I'm afraid I'm too vain for a plastic, berry-filled fanny pack. I prefer the value-sized ice cream bucket with handle. It sits nicely on the ground while I alternate between stretching and strengthening my back and squats. I hate when I see people using berry forks to strip the plant. For one, it hurts the plant, and also, there are inevitably green berries yet to ripen which can be left for other pickers or critters. I like to think the effort of gathering these wild treasures in small amounts is part of what makes them so special. A treasure. It's probably true about most things in life.
Huckleberries grow wild in many different parts of the U.S. not just in Montana. Perhaps this is why the huckleberry inspired many different phrases dating back to the 1800s. Because huckleberries are small, the word came to be used as a nickname for something small, unimportant, or insignificant. It seems likely this is what Mark Twain had in mind when he named his Huckleberry Finn character, a representation of a boy from a lower class.
One of the most famous huckleberry phrases, though, was “I'm your huckleberry." You remember that scene in Tombstone, don't you? Back in the day, if you said “I'm your huckleberry," it meant “I'm your man"- I'm the right guy for the job. Doc Holiday was the man, am I right? Over time the phrase and even the word huckleberry was often used as a term of endearment or friendship - think Huckleberry Hound or that altogether sweet companion of Strawberry Shortcake, Huckleberry Pie.
Now, while huckleberry pie is undoubtedly my favorite way to consume berries sans straight from the shrub, I'm always on the hunt for other options as well. I've shared my huckleberry and lemon scone recipe here, and I'll post another huckleberry recipe next week.