Huckleberry picking and the reward of this deeply flavorful fruit is truly an unforgettable life experience. These tiny berries are rich in antioxidants that may help protect the heart, protect brain function, reduce cancer risk and more. Huckleberry benefits more than health: it will benefit your senses, your taste buds, and your sense of adventure! Learn where to find huckleberries and why they are so rare.
Finding huckleberries in Montana is a physical feat and a great way to encounter wild animals too. Sometimes a massive bear will beat you to them, and you will feel the humbling sensation of wilderness far bigger than humanity.
The reward in taste, exhilaration, and endurance, is nothing but intense.
What is a Huckleberry?
Huckleberries (Vaccinium membranaceum) are related to and look like blueberries and bilberries.. This specific species is thought to be exclusive to Montana and Idaho.
Huckleberries are part of the heather family of plants, which includes over 4200 plants. The family of Vaccinium berries contain over 400 species worldwide and 26 are native to the United States. The Vaccinium species also includes the blueberry and cranberry.
Eastern huckleberries are not closely related; they fall in the Gaylusaccia species. Northwest huckleberries are more closely related to blueberries than Eastern huckleberries. The flavor is not nearly as potent in the Eastern varieties.
Huckleberries of Montana and Idaho make up a large portion of bears’ diets as well, with estimates of up to one-third of their food intake. Picking huckleberries is also a great way to spot a bear!
Demand for huckleberries continues to go up while supply is down . Fire years seem to give the crop boosts, so the production may improve at any given time.
Notice the deep pigments of the huckleberry here. The color comes from a pigment in nature called anthocyanin. You will see this in almost every blue-red pigmented vegetable or fruit and even in some grains like forbidden black rice.
These tiny, fragrant berries are legends of Montana as well as Idaho. If you come here in the summer, you may never want to leave after experiencing the taste.
Huckleberries make blueberries seem bland and boring in comparison. They have a flavor profile that is well beyond any berry I’ve ever tasted. For this reason, a little goes a long way in cuisine, and they mix nicely with pears, peaches, strawberries and more.
How to Find Huckleberries
Huckleberries in Montana and Idaho are wild and always will be.
No one has successfully grown or domesticated them. This is one of many reasons they are coveted. My friends and neighbors will spend days of their summer only to find a small bowl-full.
Walking up a steep slope of the mountainous Montana regions in mid-summer, you will occasionally be delighted to find a small patch of huckleberries. Most likely you will smell their aroma before you see them. They typically grow partially shaded sides of the mountain.
Lucky for me, there are people who know where to go; they sell lovely huckleberries by the pound at farmer’s markets in Missoula!
Huckleberry bushes thrive in areas previously burned by forest fires. One area can be thick with them, and a few short years later, the berry crop will be scarce in that area.
For this reason, huckleberry enthusiasts will speak in hushed tones about their secret berry-picking spots but will come back to work on Monday and brag about their berry “mother lode” harvest and adventure of the weekend.
You will be in need of the huckleberry’s electrolytes by the time you reach the little gems.
If you go to a summer farmer’s market and buy a pound of huckleberries for $10, the price-tag in no way compensates for the flavor-value you get. And the labor value: it could take you a day to pick that amount!
How to Pick Huckleberries
Tools are available to pick huckleberries. These tools, called huckleberry rakes, grasp the berries from the bush, saving you some back bending.
Native Peoples used the spine of salmon to help comb the little berries off the bush more efficiently. Grizzly bears strip the whole bush and eat leaves, berries and all.
Humans should avoid stripping the leaves from the bushes to help reduce damage to the plants.
Huckleberry Benefits for Health
Tiny huckleberries are rich in anthocyanin pigments, which are a type of antioxidants .
In foods, over 500 types of anthocyanins exist. They belong to a class of compounds called flavonoids. With over 8000 anthocyanins being identified; the list keeps growing.
Only one research study exists about this exact species of Montana Huckleberry, nutritionally speaking. However, the components found in these berries include anthocyanins, which are clinically studied to benefit health in many ways.
Research about anthocyanin health benefits is growing and these benefits include:
- Antioxidant activity
- Anti-allergic activity
- Anti-inflammatory benefit
- Anti-viral action
- Antiproliferative (reduce spread)
- Anti-mutagenic (reduce cancer)
- Anti-carcinogenic (reduce cancer)
- Protection from cardiovascular damage
- Microcirculation improvement
- Peripheral capillary fragility prevention
- Diabetes prevention
- Vision improvement
Huckleberry Heart Health Benefits
The strongest research data for anthocyanins is their ability to reduce LDL or bad cholesterol. In a review of 10 clinical studies in humans, anthocyanins had a beneficial effect on cholesterol and had no negative side effects at high doses .
Anthocyanins reduce cholesterol absorption in the gut .
People who eat at least 3 servings of anthocyanin-rich foods like huckleberries per week had a 30% reduced risk of heart attacks .
Huckleberries and Brain Function Benefits
Berries rich in anthocyanins are related to improved brain function. In a recent large observational study berry intake reduced risk of brain aging, using predictive statistics, by about 2.5 years .
Low estrogen levels are related to reductions in memory and considerable work is being done to determine factors that may reduce the memory loss of declining hormones as we age.
Anthocyanins such as those in huckleberries increased memory and brain function in rats that were deprived of estrogen, a known risk factor for memory loss .
Huckleberries May Help Detoxification
We need healthy livers to help cleanse the blood and detoxify the body. Anthocyanin-rich food helped protect the liver from the damages of toxic alcohol in rats .
Huckleberries May Reduce Cancer Risk
Anthocyanin-rich foods like huckleberries may reduce the risk of the most common types of cancer. In a cell study, anthocyanins reduced the spread and growth of breast cancer cells [10, 11]. Similar benefits are seen in early studies of colon, esophageal, skin and lung cells. This research is preliminary at this point .
How To Use Huckleberries
Huckleberries are ripe for a short period of time, through late June and early August. We find ways to enjoy them all year long by canning, freezing and more.
In Montana and Idaho, you might find recipes for huckleberries in just about everything from cocktails to ice cream, desserts, potatoes, chicken and pork dishes to name a few. It seems there are infinite ways to enjoy this intensely purple berry!
Here are some sweet and savory huckleberry recipes for you to enjoy.
Personally, I enjoy huckleberries the most when they are prepared in the simplest of ways: fresh from the mountain, fresh from the market, or with some juicy peaches.
Huckleberry Ice Cream
You may not want to pass through Missoula, Montana without trying the Big Dipper huckleberry ice cream! While I don’t eat sugar frequently, food is also about making memories.
You might want to splurge just this one time. Just make sure to go for a hike on the trails of Mount Sentinel.
You can also make your own huckleberry ice cream by simply stirring some berries into your vanilla ice cream for an exotic taste.
Montana huckleberries are more than fruit. They are an experience of a lifetime. A visit to Montana or Idaho in the summer may be your most unforgettable yet, with memories of the fragrant huckleberry lasting for years to come.
Huckleberry Syrup Recipe
- 2 cups huckleberries ripe
- 1/3 cup honey local
- 2 teaspoons water
- 1 drop CPTG lemon essential oil
- Combine huckleberries, lemon juice and honey in a pain. Mix together and bring to a boil on medium heat for 5 minutes. Remove from heat. In a separate bowl, mix cornstarch and water. Add cornstarch mixture to the fruit and mix in 1 drop CPTG lemon essential oil.
Photo credits: johnashleyfineart.com/
The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration or any other medical body and is shared for educational purposes only. Consult your doctor or healthcare provider before making changes to your supplement regimen or lifestyle.
Heidi Moretti, MS, RD is The Healthy RD. A registered dietitian for 20 years, has a passion for functional nutrition and natural medicine. Has researched supplements and plants as medicine throughout her career. Loves helping people gain function and vitality by tackling root causes of illness.