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Huckleberry Hound Hopes to Tame Wild Fruit

A scientist is on the cusp of cultivating the popular purple berries. His work may help rural economies in the Northwest.

September 07, 2003|Nicholas K. Geranios | Associated Press Writer

SANDPOINT, Idaho — They call it purple gold, and people will lug heavy buckets and compete with bears to get some.

Huckleberries only grow in the wild, and picking them has long fueled an underground economy in the mountain West.

Now a University of Idaho scientist is on the cusp of cultivating huckleberries, hoping to turn this exotic fruit into just another farm product.

"We are facing a diminishing supply and dramatically increasing demand," said Danny L. Barney, a scientist at the University of Idaho's Sandpoint Research and Extension Center.

The nation's leading specialist on Vaccinium membranaceum, you might call Barney a huckleberry hound. After 15 years of research, he figures that within five years, people will be able to buy huckleberry seeds at their local nursery and plant them at home.

But huckleberries remain an exotic fruit, and products made with the purple berries -- including jams, jellies, wine, candy and shampoos -- are a staple of tourism-related businesses in the Northwest.

"It pays my rent in the summer," said Jack Eaves, owner of Wino World in Sandpoint, who estimates that he sells four to five cases of huckleberry-flavored wines per week. "It's been my top seller for six years now."

A block away, numerous huckleberry products have their own display at the flagship store of upscale mail-order retailer Coldwater Creek.

And the Beyond Hope Resort, just beyond Hope, Idaho, is famous for its huckleberry daiquiri.

No one knows the full scope of the underground huckleberry economy, in part because many pickers are secretive about where they get their berries or how much they harvest.

Many small companies in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington and British Columbia make products out of huckleberries. But the supply of berries is erratic and varies widely from year to year.

The last bumper crop of wild huckleberries was in 1994, Barney said. Subsequent harvests were hurt by bad weather and huge wildfires that cut off access to prime picking areas. A gallon of huckleberries that usually fetches between $16 and $30 for a picker can be worth as much as $48 this year, Barney said.

Indian tribes long prized huckleberries for food and trade purposes, and white settlers immediately developed a taste for the small, round fruit. Recently, huckleberries were designated Idaho's state fruit.

The fruit has long been in the national consciousness. In the early 1800s, huckleberry became a term for something humble or minor. Mark Twain chose the name Huckleberry Finn for the character of his famous novel to denote a boy of a lower social status than Tom Sawyer.

Later in the 1800s, the expression "I'm your huckleberry" became popular as a term of affection for one's partner or friend.

"Huckleberry Hound" was a popular televised cartoon show from the late 1950s about an easygoing blue dog who was challenged by everyday events.

Barney, a native of Wallace, Idaho, and graduate of Cornell University, believes that the humble huckleberry can help rural economies in the region recover some of the jobs lost in the logging and mining industries.

Many small makers of huckleberry products could expand dramatically with a larger and steadier supply of berries, he said. Ski resorts could grow huckleberries to augment their income in summer months, he said.

But growing huckleberries commercially has proven to be a daunting task.

Huckleberries are found in the wild at elevations between 4,000 and 6,000 feet, far higher than most farms. That's because the fruit is best suited for high altitudes with short growing seasons, Barney said.

Efforts to grow huckleberries at lower elevations found that the fruit is very susceptible to weather extremes, especially from early season warm spells followed by freezes, Barney said.

There are also questions of how much shade is optimal for huckleberry bushes and what is the best soil to use.

At his lab in this lakeside resort town, where thousands of huckleberry plants are in various stages of growth, Barney is crossbreeding different varieties to find the best tasting blend.

He is trying to learn how many plants are best per acre, what sort of fertilizer to use and whether weeds should be controlled. Huckleberry bushes are slow to mature. Plants that he started growing from seeds in 1996 are only now bearing fruit, Barney said.

As early as next spring, interested farmers will begin receiving plants to test in their fields. Some huckleberry plants will also go to forest managers to see how they perform in the wild, Barney said.

He hopes to release plants for commercial production in 2008.

Some question if huckleberries will retain their popularity if they become as common as blueberries, their close cousin.

Jackie Watkins, owner of the Huckleberry Patch in Hungry Horse, Mont., has long relied on pickers to bring in wild berries, which are used to make fudge, lip balm, bubble bath and other products.

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