The Wild Mountain Huckleberry of Western North America Is A Treasured Wild Food & One Of Nature’s Best Kept Secrets
Wild Mountain Huckleberry
Vaccinium membranaceum, commonly known in the Pacific Northwest area of the United States as the wild mountain or black huckleberry, is a staple food and medicinal plant relied upon and revered by many indigenous populations for countless generations. Wild mountain huckleberries preserve extremely well, have ample nutritional content, and thus were essential to surviving food scarcity during winter months. Additionally, the late summer harvest season culminated in important community gatherings that allowed extended families to reunite with each other once a year (Hummer 2013).
In fact, the Indian Heaven Wilderness area located between Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens is named so because of its profuse huckleberry fields. This region includes an ancient horse racing track used for entertainment purposes to bide time while indigenous peoples dried their huckleberries on rocks in the sun or over fire pits. To view the U.S. Forest Service’s description of the Indian Heaven Wilderness horse race track along with information about nearby huckleberry fields and hiking trails please click here.
Anthocyanins, Colorful Antioxidants
Fifteen different flavonoid compounds called anthocyanins have been detected in V. membranaceum with chrysanthemin being the most abundant (Lee et al. 2004). Anthocyanins have powerful antioxidant properties and they occur in numerous flowers, fruits, and vegetables. These water-soluable pigments range in color from red, blue, and purple. They are produced in late summer and stored in the sap cells of leaves until a variety of environmental conditions prompt them to be released throughout all plant tissues. Research about the functions of anthocyanins indicates they protect and repair plant tissue from damage caused by UV light, temperature fluctuations, and feeding animals (Lee and Gould 2002). The presence of anthocyanins are easily observed in the purple hues of the wild huckleberry fruit and in the coloring of leaves which shift from green to red as a fruiting season progresses.
Curiously, the wild mountain huckleberry has been shown to contain less anthocyanins than Vaccinium ovatum, a coastal species commonly known as the evergreen huckleberry. This striking disparity in antioxidant content seems inconsistent with the bland and timid flavor profile of evergreen huckleberries. Anthocyanins are odorless yet they contribute to taste. However, anthocyanins appear in particularly high concentrations in the skin of fruits. Since evergreen huckleberries are smaller than wild mountain huckleberries their fruits have a higher ratio of skin content hence the greater presence of anthocyanins (Lee et al. 2004).
Moreover, the contrast in delectability between these two huckleberry species is reflected by a huge difference in their market pricing. No one has bothered investing resources into domesticating evergreen huckleberries for their fruits. Evergreen huckleberries grow easily in an assortment of conditions and their commercial value is based more on being used as an ornamental plant rather than as a culinary delight.
Exclusively Wild, Resistant to Domestication
Currently, V. membranaceum is considered an important regional commodity. In the state of Montana alone wild mountain huckleberries provide $1 million worth of commerce and they contribute to foraging and tourism economies in Idaho and Washington (Richards et al. 2006). Continuing the tradition of bringing communities together, festivals devoted entirely to celebrating these precious berries are held annually in Donnelly, ID and Bingen, WA.
Wild mountain huckleberries are cherished primarily because they are exceptionally delicious whether eaten fresh or prepared. Their flavor is robust, equally tart and sweet, and features complex mineral tones and savory dimensions that can verge on tasting peppery depending on the exact specimen being enjoyed. Gourmet restaurants serving locally harvested wild foods offer seasonal huckleberry dishes for a very steep price. More importantly, the wild mountain huckleberry is a highly coveted ingredient because domestication of V. membranaceum has proven to be an elusive, fruitless pursuit. To learn more about recent attempts to domesticate wild mountain huckleberries please click here and here.
A major consideration in the riddle as to why the wild mountain huckleberry refuses to be grown methodically on a farm at the behest of humans might reside in the fact that its ideal growing range is at an elevation of 4,000 to 6,000 feet (Barney 2003). The plants also prefer highly acidic soil which is perhaps why they prosper in the Cascade Mountains where such soils are plentiful due to volcanic activity. Able to withstand immersion in a mountain snowpack for over six months, V. membranaceum can be extremely resilient and was one of the first plants to begin growing within the Mt. St. Helens blast zone following the catastrophic 1980 eruption.
Another factor challenging the domestication of wild mountain huckleberries could be the unique relationship between fungi and plants called mycorrhizal associations. Plants and fungi growing in tandem benefit from these associations because they facilitate access to nutrients in the soil. There are only six known mycorrhizal associations. Among these one is specific to the Ericaceae plant family to which V. membranaceum belongs and it is called ericoid mycorrhizae. Research into the agricultural implications of ericoid mycorrhizal associations on the wild mountain huckleberry is essentially nonexistent and might provide crucial insights for mastering cultivation.
To many people raised in the Pacific Northwest wild mountain huckleberries have a mythical status. Without the adventure required in acquiring them, wild mountain huckleberries would not have the same eminence. In order to find out why these berries are so remarkable you must first convince a huckleberry hound to bring you on an arduous journey to a remote and confidential location of a prized berry patch. High up in the thin mountain air with the summer sun beating down, you must brave competing with bears craving the same bounty and suffer constant intrusions from horseflies hungry for your blood. All the while you must laboriously pick each individual berry while resisting the urge to eat them immediately. Once you endure these great lengths and finally taste a freshly plucked wild mountain huckleberry for yourself you could become enchanted with huckleberry fever.
Barney, DL. 2003. Prospects for domesticating western huckleberries. Small Fruits Review, 2(1), 15-29.
Hummer, KE. 2013. Manna in winter: Indigenous Americans, huckleberries, and blueberries. HortScience [Internet], [Cited 10 March 2017] 48(4), 413-417. Available from https://hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/pdfs/hummer-hortsci-48-2013.pdf
Lee, DW, Gould, KS. 2002. Why leaves turn red. American Scientist, 90(6), 524.
Lee, J, Finn, CE, Wrolstad, RE. 2004. Comparison of anthocyanin pigment and other phenolic compounds of Vaccinium membranaceum and Vaccinium ovatum native to the Pacific Northwest of North America. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry [Internet], [Cited 10 March 2017] 52(23), 7039-7044. Available from https://www.ars.usda.gov/ARSUserFiles/37108/PDF/2004JAgricFoodChem52_7039_7044.pdf
Richards, RT, Alexander, SJ. (2006). A social history of wild huckleberry harvesting in the Pacific Northwest. US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. Vol. 657. [Internet]. [Cited 10 March 2017]. Available from http://www.arlis.org/docs/vol1/65546845.pdf