High on Huckleberries

High in the mountains of Alberta and extending West into nearly all of British Columbia grows a plant beloved by those who’’ve experienced it (and misunderstood by those who have not). The plant’s crop has traditionally played an important part in the region’s culture, and local residents guard their crop locations with vigilance.

I am, of course, talking about the much adored huckleberry plant. Isn’’t that what you were thinking?

Never seen a real huckleberry? You aren’’t alone. For most Albertans, the word ‘huckleberry’ makes you think of Mark Twain or those family restaurants along Highway 1. But they’re an actual fruit, and a delicious one at that!

Photo courtesy John Reid.

Many people who have never had a huckleberry may confuse them with their close relative, the blueberry. To do so in front of an experienced huckle-lover could earn you a bear spray to the face. You shouldn’’t be judged too harshly, however, as the plant and fruit of both berries do look similar. The difference is the huckleberry is like the cool, older cousin that the blueberry wants to sit beside at Christmas dinner. And it tastes better.

The western variety found throughout BC and into Alberta’s foothills and mountains is dark purple in colour, very juicy, and can be hard to find. They grow best at about 2,000m above sea level in acidic loam soil – the kind that’’s found in old cut blocks and fire damaged areas. Even then, the plants are super sensitive to poor growing seasons and just one extra frost can mean a meager crop. All those variables make huckleberries a rare treat.

Huckleberry pie, anyone? Photo courtesy John Reid.

How rare? Well consider that just half a kilogram is worth a whopping $40 on average. Their value has had a lot of people trying to domesticate them as crops, but no one has been very successful. The berries are just too sensitive. But the delicious taste and antioxidant properties of wild huckleberries are too good to miss. They’’re worth the trouble to get them and the best way to get them is with your own paws.

Here are some berry picking tips (and no-nos):

–  Picking berries in a national park is prohibited. Provincial parks allow it with verbal approval from a conservation office. If you aren’’t in a park, or on private land, pick away.

–  Remember that berries are a valuable food source for other wildlife, pick only enough for yourself. Four cups is a good rule of thumb.

–  Always, always, ALWAYS bring bear spray. Keep it on your belt and know how to use it.

–  If you do see wildlife, leave immediately and try not to disturb it. Berries are their food and you’’re in their area.

–  Do not damage the rest of the plant when picking. Leave unripe berries, leaves and branches on the plant.

–  Bring lots of water and sun protection. You can dehydrate fast when you’’re pickin’ hard.

–  Don’’t pick or eat berries you can’’t identify.

–  Try not to eat them faster than you can pick them…

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John Reid

John Reid

John Reid is a University of Calgary Faculty of Kinesiology graduate and Precision Nutrition Certified Sports Nutritionist. When he’s not rowing for the Calgary Row Club you’ll find him enjoying every possible second in the mountains hiking, trail running and road cycling.

Outside of sports, John is involved with the Branch Out Neurological Foundation, a local non-profit charitable organization dedicated to fundraising for new and alternative forms of treatment for neurological disorders.

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  1. While it may be illegal to pick Wild Huckleberries in Canadian National Forest. That is not true of the US National Parks though each park sets its own limits. Typically if you pick less than three to ten pounds per person you do not need a permit. If you pick more than that or for commercial use there is a permit fee