Huckleberries — Beautiful Plant, Delicious Berries
Jeanne DeBenedetti Keyes
In 2011, while I was enjoying the sunset and listening to the sounds of Oregon's Olallie Lake lapping the shoreline, I noticed, again, how abundant the huckleberries were this year. You could literally plunk your camp chair down anywhere and pick the luscious blue-black berries until your fingers turned purple!
My family and I made our annual trip up to the lower ridges of Mt Jefferson for some camping, fishing, huckleberry picking and quality time in the woods. The species of huckleberry in this region is Vaccinium membranaceum. The native plant is found at elevations between 1,900 and 6,600 feet in subalpine coniferous forests and meadows, ranging from Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and in the Cascade Mountains from northern California into British Columbia. This shrub is deciduous with a densely branched structure, growing between 3 and 6 feet tall. The leaves are elliptical, generally ½ to 1 ½ inches long, which turn a fiery red in the fall. The flowers are white to pale pink, nodding, bell-like blossoms.
Family lore has it that huckleberries are especially abundant during a year with a heavy snowpack. Now, this makes sense but is it really true?
Wikipedia states: "In a good year Vaccinium membranaceum shrubs produce a lot of fruit. The amount of fruit produced by these shrubs is legendary, with stories being told of mountain sides turned purple by all of the fruit, or shrubs being weighed to the ground by large, and abundant berries."
But what constitutes a "good year?" The Pacific Northwest had a record snowfall this year. The cool spring and summer allowed the snow to slowly melt, providing the huckleberries with a steady source of moisture. Summer temperatures were very moderate, until a few weeks before our trip. Temperatures soared into the upper 90s (degrees Fahrenheit), drying out the soil and provided excellent conditions for wildfires. And in fact, this area has suffered several fires in the last ten years, including one last year. V. membranaceum is fire adapted and are resistant to low intensity fires. The shrubs will resprout from rhizomes buried in the soil. Would the berries have been as sweet and large if temperatures had been warmer earlier in the year or if a recent fire had not put additional nutrients in the soil?
I don’t know but I can tell you there is nothing finer than enjoying the crisp mountain air, eating pancakes smothered in freshly picked, delicious huckleberries!
Unfortunately, this year I had to do without fresh huckleberries in my pancakes! I was so disappointed. My mouth was watering all the way up to the Lake but it was not meant to be. First, we ended up camping at Horseshoe Lake, a beautiful small lake south of Olallie Lake and further up the side of Mt. Jefferson. We picked a lovely lakeside campsite and were very happy with front row seats to the antics of dragonflies and the cool waters of Horseshoe Lake. This campsite was heavenly: Gorgeous, blue skies, warm but not hot temperatures. It can’t get better than this! But wait, where are the huckleberries? Oh, here’s one! Oh, there’s one over there! They were tasty, if not very abundant.
So, this past winter was an average snow year for Mt. Hood and the Cascade Mountains. Again, the summer was quite cool and damp and then the hot weather hit in early August. And yes, again there was a wildfire in the area, four miles away. Fortunately, the campground was not closed as the fire was moving the other direction.
The conditions for a successful huckleberry season seem to be very similar. Where were the berries? There were no green berries either, which might indicate that we were there too early in the season. Maybe a black bear ate them all? Hmm, it is a mystery!