A Berry Regional and Finicky Fruit
Huckleberries are the northwest’s ultimate summer fruit and the signature ingredient in an array of delightful treats.
There is huckleberry pie, huckleberry ice cream, huckleberry syrup, huckleberry jam, jelly and taffy, huckleberry wine, and there are huckleberry pancakes, huckleberry muffins and huckleberries by the handful…
With all the hoopla surrounding wild, hand-picked huckleberries one wonders why the delightful berries aren’t cultivated to provide huckleberry fanatics with the festive fruit year-round.
Enter University of Idaho master’s student Nash Muckey, who was introduced to the regional fare when he joined a U of I research team that explores barriers to huckleberry propagation.
It’s just an iconic fruit… that is really important to people. Nash Muckey, graduate student, entomology
“Huckleberries grow well in the wild, but they’re hard to domesticate,” said Muckey an entomology student who spent part of last summer at several sites in north Idaho catching insects to learn which bugs the huckleberry bush relies on for pollination. “It’s just an iconic fruit in this region that is really important to people.”
Not only does the demand for the wild fruit keep growing, but the number of wild plants seems to be decreasing. Researchers want to learn why huckleberry is difficult to cultivate and draw a bead on why the plant is becoming less populous.
Muckey, who earned his undergraduate degree in ecology, will spend the next couple of years under the tutelage of Professor Stephen Cook, identifying what makes huckleberries grow better in the wild than in a greenhouse.
“The overall goal of this project is to identify which species of wild bees are important pollinators of huckleberry and to determine if we can improve pollination by applying certain soil amendments,” Cook said. “As we move forward, we will be investigating things like change in nectar quality or floral color which may be influenced by what is in the soil.”
The research seeks to unlock secrets that could help with huckleberry domestication and commercial production.
“During this first year of the project, we’ll collect and identify pollinating insects that are active in wild stands of huckleberry at multiple elevations,” Muckey said. “We also want to determine and compare the overall composition of the surrounding insect community.”
After the first field season, Muckey, who caught insects around wild huckleberry bushes at eight sites in north Idaho with nets and traps, said bumblebees are a common pollinator of the plant.
“Populations of native bees are presumed to be the most important group of huckleberry pollinators,” Cook said.
Muckey’s research will identify the exact species of bees.
Muckey netted pollinators on sunny, windless days during the hours of peak activity usually between late morning and early evening. Specimens were placed into small plastic vials labeled with site, date, the plant species on which they were nabbed, and returned to the lab for identification. Two more field seasons will likely shed more light on which pollinators huckleberries attract the most.
A lower number of huckleberry may be attributed to denser forest canopies that have reduced sunlight reaching the forest floor, he said. One reason that the changing light conditions may impact fruit production is that they may lower the ability of pollinators to locate and use flowers.
The ’23 growing season was unusual in that huckleberry bushes in the study areas bloomed, were pollinated and produced berries a lot sooner than usual, Muckey said. Plants that normally produce berries in July were already laden with unripe berries by the end of June.
“They are kind of a finicky plant,” Muckey said. “Really prone to weather conditions.”
If the conditions support blooming, huckleberries will sprout flowers early, or they may wait until later in the season.
“It’s hard to predict,” he said.
The project has two more field seasons and next year’s field work includes planting treated huckleberry alongside wild bushes. Researchers will measure growth, including flowers and foliage, and compare pollinator visitation rates and fruit production of planted huckleberry with wild plants, based, in part, on soil.
“During the third year of the project, we will continue to measure and compare leaf chemistry and floral color between planted and wild plants as well as among soil treatments,” Muckey said.
Cook anticipates the research may contribute to domestication of the fruiting plant, but with a dose of realism.
“There’s something in these forests that is just conducive to growing huckleberries,” he said.
Cook, a huckleberry enthusiast — “They are delicious,” he said — understands the importance of huckleberry to the region.
“It’s just a culturally important fruit native to the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Because it has not been domesticated for production purposes, the economic contribution of huckleberry comes from wild fruit and the demand for the fruit continues to increase while the supply has been decreasing,” Cook said.
Article by Ralph Bartholdt, University Communications
Photos by Rio Spiering, University of Idaho Visual Productions
Published in September 2023