Riding down the trail in the Absaroka Mountains of Montana with a few of my family’s guests I gaze out across the glorious fields of wildflowers and the towering blue mountains still capped with snow! “Have you been to Yellowstone yet?” I start the small talk with the one riding behind me. “Not yet! But we’re planning to do that tomorrow!” She smiles, you can tell this is all new for them. They’ve never seen or done anything like this and are excited for every part of their adventure! “Well, if you go to Old Faithful…and you really shouldn’t miss Old Faithful…go in the lodge and try some Wilcoxson’s huckleberry ice cream!” I enthusiastically recommend. Come to think of it, I would really like some right about now, too!
What is a Huckleberry Anyway?
“Wild huckleberries in the Pacific Northwest are members of the Ericaceous family’s Vaccinium genus. The word “huckleberry” originally referred to the circumboreal species, Vaccinium myrtillus, which occurs in England, Europe, and as far north and east as Siberia. According to Henry David Thoreau, huckleberry appears to be an American word derived originally from “hurtleberry,” a corruption of the Saxon heart-berg or “the hart’s berry.” It was first used by John Lawson in 1709 to describe berry use in North Carolina where the hurts, huckleberries, or blues of this country are four sorts…. The Indians get many bushels, and dry them on mats, whereof they make plumb bread, and many other eatables. (Thoreau in Dean 2001: 41)
“In North America, there are approximately 35 species of Vaccinium, many of which are known as huckleberries, blueberries, or cranberries.” (Richards, R.T. & Alexander, 2006).
Some claim that wild huckleberries taste like blueberries, but beyond their shape and color I think they stand on their own. The flavor is hard to describe if you’ve never experienced it before! Here in the Wild West we use it for a lot more than just ice cream. It is used in honey, syrup, soap, coffee, salad dressing, pies, and so much more! The difficult part is that wild huckleberries have never been commercially cultivated. That means that the businesses who mass produce these products have to go out berry picking where everyone else does.
An Age Old Food Source
Before the commercial huckleberry products and even before the settlers picked them to can for a winter food source, Native American tribes were harvesting these blueberries and preserving them as a major food supply.
“Huckleberries have been a staple of life for Northwest and Rocky Mountain Native American tribes for thousands of years. In the Journals of Lewis and Clark, they wrote of the tribes west of the Rocky Mountains using dried berries extensively in 1805 and 1806. Captain Meriwether Lewis on reaching the Shoshone Tribe (also known as the Snake Nation, occupied areas both east and west of the Rocky Mountains) and the Great Divide, 15 August 1805:
“This morning I arose very early and as hungry as a wolf. I had eaten nothing yesterday except one scant meal of the flour and berries, except the dried cakes of berries, which did not appear to satisfy my appetite as they appeared to do those of my Indian friends. I found on inquire of McNeal that we had only about two pounds of flour remaining. This I directed him to divide into two equal parts and to cook the one half this morning in a kind of pudding with the berries as he had done yesterday, and reserve the balance for the evening. On this new-fashioned pudding four of us breakfasted, giving a pretty good allowance also to the chief, who declared it the best thing he had tasted for a long time.”
Northwest tribes made special combs of wood or salmon backbones to strip huckleberries off the bushes. They dried the berries in the sun or smoked them and then mashed them into cakes and wrapped these in leaves or bark for storage.” The importance of these berries can be seen in the beautifully beaded designs that are included on pieces of clothing.
In the 1920s, there was a huckleberry boom in Montana which lead to massive tent towns springing up around prime huckleberry picking locations. Outside Trout Creek, the settlers would camp on one side of the road and the Natives from the Flathead Reservation would camp on the other side. During the day they would all go out and pick berries together.
According to our Plains Indian Museum Curatorial Assistant, Hunter Old Elk, “The use of salmon bone and tools such as those are commonly adopted by the Plateau Tribes such as the Warm Spring Indians, Yakamas, and Colvilles. It makes sense that the Flathead Indians would be included in that because their culture groups are so similar to the Plateau region.” She also explained how different berries would be gathered and used, “Berries often used on the Plains included chokecherries, buffalo berries, elderberries, Sarvis berry, wild rose berry, and wild plums among many other wild fruits and vegetables foraged. Often, the cherries would get grounded into a paste with dried wild game such as buffalo, elk, and deer to make a food called Pimican. We also make a hot pudding out of berries when boiled for long periods of time. Highly sought after, tribes would use chokecherry bushes as switches in the sweat lodge. Some tribes would dry berries and eat them in the winter while others would freeze them in the winter and eat them as well.”
The Berry Diva
Chances are that even though you may not have tasted one of these amazing huckleberries, you have at least heard the term. In Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the name Huckleberry was used to represent that character as inferior in status to the character Tom Sawyer. During the time that the book was published calling someone a ‘huck’ or ‘huckleberry’ meant exactly that. If you’ve watched the movie Tombstone you might be a bit confused now as to why Doc Holliday would then refer to himself as a huckleberry…
During Doc Holliday’s time period to be a huckleberry meant to be the person for the job, much like we would say, ‘I’m your man’ or woman! We may not use either saying today but the cultural impact left by this fruit is second to none.
A Berry Difficult Balance
Huckleberries grow best after a fire. In 1910, there was a legendary wildfire in the forests where you would generally find huckleberries. That fire caused the National Forest Service to change their policy from letting it burn to fighting every fire. It also caused the huckleberry boom that Montana experienced throughout the 1920s.
The “fight every fire” policy is still in place today but it also means that the overgrowth in these forests is taking over what once were magnificent huckleberry patches. If you combine that overgrowth with commercial berry picking a devastating conclusion emerges…unless something changes there will soon be a time without huckleberries.
We all love the amazing products available to us because there are companies out there commercially picking the berries and processing them for our pleasure. However, it is vital that we find a way to conserve this special berry. Maybe it is to institute a controlled burn of pivotal sections, or to clear out some of the overgrowth with selective logging, or maybe there is a solution we haven’t even realized yet!
Richards, R. T., & Alexander, S. J. (2006). A Social History of Wild Huckleberry Harvesting in the Pacific Northwest. Portland, OR: USDA, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station.