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Can the Huckleberry be Tamed?

U of I team working to domesticate East Idaho’s favorite berry

Published online: May 02, 2024 Home And Garden
Viewed 2235 time(s)

By Ralph Barnholdt, University of Idaho

Huckleberries, East Idaho’s signature fruit, are prized as an 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 has to wonder: Why aren’t the delightful berries cultivated to provide 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.

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 northern 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 demand for the wild fruit keep growing, but the number of wild plants seems to be decreasing, Muckey said. Researchers want to learn why huckleberries are so difficult to cultivate and draw a bead on why the plant is becoming less populous.

Muckey 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. He already learned bumblebees are the plant’s most common pollinator and hopes to narrow down the exact species of wild bees

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.”

Denser forest canopies that have reduced sunlight reaching the forest floor may contribute to declining numbers of huckleberry plants in the region, researchers said. Changing light conditions may impact fruit production by lowering the ability of pollinators to locate flowers.

Last growing season was unusual because huckleberry bushes known to produce berries in July were already laden with unripe berries in June.

They are really finicky and really prone to weather conditions,” Muckey said.

If conditions support blooming, huckleberries will sprout flowers early, or they may wait until later in the season, researchers said.

This season’s field work includes planting greenhouse huckleberry alongside wild bushes to measure the difference in growth, including flowers and foliage, and compare pollinator visitation rates and fruit production 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 hopes the research will contribute an important step to domesticating the fruiting plant.

There’s something in these forests that is just conducive to growing huckleberries that we may not be able to reproduce in a greenhouse,” he said.

The Pitkin Forest Nursery, which is Idaho’s state nursery, produces roughly 500 huckleberry plants per year. A few are used for Muckey and Cook’s research while most are purchased directly by homeowners for landscaping.

A huckleberry enthusiast himself, Cook understands the importance of the plant to the region.

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.

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