I have only lived in Boundary County about two decades, but that time has taught me by late July and early August North Idaho mountain ranges will be crawling with treasure hunters searching for purple gems. Armed with plastic ice cream buckets, grocery store sacks, coffee cans, or other containers, the prospectors comb hillsides from dawn to dusk. In coffee shops and cafes, they speak in hushed tones of finding “gold mines,” “mother lodes,” “bonanzas” or “purple gold!”
All this activity can mean only one thing: Boundary County’s prized wild fruit, the huckleberry, is plentiful and ready to pick.
The huckleberry (Vaccinium Membranaceum) has other common names — big whortleberry, black huckleberry and bilberry. The huckleberry was adopted as Idaho’s state fruit on Feb. 14, 2000.
There are several huckleberry species native to Idaho. The huckleberry plant grows slowly, some taking up to 15 years to reach full maturity. Huckleberries depend on an insulating cover of snow for survival during winter and have not been successfully grown commercially.
The huckleberry is a low erect shrub, ranging from 1-5 feet tall. The flowers are shaped like tiny pink or white urns, which blossom in June and July, depending on elevation. The leaves are short, elliptical and alternative on the stems. The bush turns brilliant red and sheds its leaves in the fall. The stem bark is reddish (often yellowish-green in shaded sites). The shape of the berry varies from round to oval and the color varies from purplish black to wine-colored red. Some species have a dusky blue covering called bloom. The berries taste sweet and tart, in the same proportions.
Boundary County is known for its abundance of huckleberries. Huckleberry picking can be enjoyed as a solitary experience or as a group activity for the entire family.
Many factors such as elevations, ripening seasons and climate contribute to a good berry site. The best berry picking is usually found along abandoned logging roads, and in old burns. The berry bushes found in these areas have a lot of sunlight and little competition for nutrients.
Unfavorable weather conditions can completely wipe out a crop of huckleberries, such as not enough rain, too much rain, a hail storm that occurs when berries are just forming on the bushes, and not enough sunshine.
Early in the season, by mid-July, the berries on sunny southern facing slopes and lower elevations are first to ripen. They are most succulent in mid to late summer. However, good picking can generally be found as late as October on north-facing slopes.
The best habitat for huckleberries is coniferous forests in open to shaded sites where there is acidic soils. They can be found at elevations ranging from 2,000-8,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains. The best sites are those that can support grand fir, alpine fir and lodgepole pine trees in abundant sunlight.
Another thing to remember is that people aren’t the only creatures working huckleberry patches. Black bears and grizzlies eat them too … so whenever you’re picking in bear country be “berry aware” of the bears, stay alert and make plenty of noise to reduce the chances of surprising a bear. The berries are very high in carbohydrates, and an abundant crop assures the bear’s survival through the winter months when they are hibernating.
Enjoy Boundary County and get your tongue purple on some delicious wild huckleberries!