Idaho's state fruit starting to ripen

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Idaho has a state flower, a state horse, a state bird, a state fish, a state flag, and...a state fruit. So designated by the Idaho Legislature in 2000, it is the huckleberry.

At this time of year, it is not too surprising that the huckleberry is the state fruit. Just about everybody in North Idaho looks forward to huckleberry picking. Huckleberries freeze well and can provide a very healthy addition to your table or to your breakfast smoothie all year long.

There are several species of huckleberries native to Idaho. The most common and most popular is the "Black," or "Thin-Leaved" huckleberry. Some plant guides, including "Common Plants of the Inland Pacific Northwest," a guide written by highly respected and widely recognized plant ecologist Dr. Charles Johnson, call the species "big huckleberry."

This species grows in moist, cool forested environments at mid to upper elevations. Berries are purple to purplish red and are a quarter to half an inch broad, depending upon the year and the site.

The plants grow up to three feet tall and take up to 15 years to reach full maturity. The single, dark purple berries grow on the shoots the plant produced that year.

Grouse huckleberry is another species found in Idaho. This plant tends to grow at higher elevations than big huckleberry, but the two can be found growing in the same sites. The grouse huckleberry plants are smaller in size, growing only about 10 inches tall. The berries are smaller (one-fifth inch broad) and more red in color.

An Internet search says that huckleberries grow at elevations between 2,000 feet and 11,000 feet. However, I don't know of anywhere in North Idaho that they grow and produce berries under 2,400 feet in elevation. Snow cover is needed to insulate the plants to survive during the winter, so perhaps plants below 3,000 feet die in those winters where there are cold temperatures, but little snow to insulate them.

There is another plant that resembles big huckleberry but does not produce an edible fruit. When I moved to Coeur d'Alene from Pocatello in 1994, I thought I had huckleberries on my property.

It was disappointing when I studied Dr. Johnson's book and learned that the plant I saw was the Fool's Huckleberry. Yes, I felt like a fool but in my defense it does look a lot like big huckleberry. The two plants have similar leaves, but a different leaf pattern. And, I moved here in December when there were no leaves on the plants.

As most people in North Idaho know, huckleberries are delicious favorites of both people and bears. Bears in North Idaho eat not only the berries, but in the spring they also utilize the flowers, leaves and stems according to Dr. John Beecham, retired Idaho Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist in his book, "A Shadow in the Forest - Idaho's Black Bear."

In fact, a poor huckleberry crop in the Priest Lake area in 1979 resulted in decreased bear productivity and survival for two years, according to Beecham.

Black bears have what are called "prehensile lips." They can use these well-coordinated and flexible lips to pick individual huckleberries faster than any person can pick with their hands. Yet they seldom get any leaves. Because bears love huckleberries and make them a major source of summer and fall nourishment, humans who pick huckleberries should always carry bear spray. It is not uncommon to have a chance encounter with a bear out and about to eat the same berries you came for.

Last weekend, I was in the woods with some friends and we found many ripe huckleberries and many more that were not yet ripe. Most plants were very heavy with berries, so it should be a banner year for picking. Many of the berries that were not ripe appeared to be starting to turn color and will be ripe soon. There is good picking now and it will continue for the next two to three months.

Several stores in the area carry rectangular boxes with stiff wires on the underside that are made just for picking huckleberries. They are intended to make the rather slow process of picking faster and more efficient. Some people can pick more with the contraption, others say they can pick just as fast by hand.

There are drawbacks to the use of a picker. Unlike berries picked entirely by hand, those picked with a picker need to be separated at home from the leaves and twigs that are inadvertently picked along with the berries. Personally, I think that I pick berries a little faster with a picker, but the time spent separating afterward probably negates any benefits.

When using a picker, many of the small berries will pass between the wires of a picker and remain on the bush. To be more efficient, some of the picker designs need to have the wires bent in a little so they are closer when picking berries that are on the small side.

Some serious "huck-sters" don't like for other people to use pickers because they believe the pickers can damage the plants. That perspective may or may not be accurate, and I don't think there is any clear indication either way.

For those who really want to celebrate the state fruit, there is a huckleberry festival scheduled in Priest Lake at the Priest Lake Golf Course. The one-day event will be held Saturday, July 19.

Features at this year's "HuckFest" include artists, commercial businesses, food booths and music in a picture perfect setting. Proceeds support the all-volunteer Priest Lake Search and Rescue Inc., a charitable organization dedicated to serving the safety of visitors and residents of Priest Lake.

Phil Cooper is a wildlife conservation educator in Coeur d'Alene for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

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