01 Sep FOR THE LOVE OF HUCKLEBERRIES
Growing up in the PNW means growing up with huckleberries. The small stretch of woods behind my house in Snoqualmie had a path which led to a bog, and along that path grew those tiny, sour, red huckleberries all August long. I never walked the path without stopping to pick a few handfuls. I don’t know who showed me it was edible, probably one of the other neighborhood kids, but it was the first wild berry I ever learned to eat.
That was a good choice because as it turns out, huckleberries have no poisonous look-alikes. Some claim nightshade berries and false huckleberries are similar, but a cursory glance will reveal stark differences.
To the left is the evergreen huckleberry. I wouldn’t say this is the most common huckleberry to see in these parts. That honor probably goes to the black huckleberry, which looks almost exactly like the red huckleberry (above) except that the berries are black and both the leaves and berries are slightly bigger.
I’ve chosen the evergreen huckleberry as comparison because it looks closest to nightshade. However…
…this is nightshade. The first thing that should stand out to you is how spaced apart the berries are, but a casual observer might still be fooled because the berries of a huckleberry have often been sporadically eaten by birds, leaving berries spaced apart.
The true difference lies in the way the berries are attached. Notice that the berries of a nightshade are not directly attached to their stems. Instead, each one emerges from a star-shaped cluster of leaves. I believe this cluster is called a calyx but, ironically enough, although I study plant genetics I’ve never actually learned plant anatomy.
Meanwhile, this is false huckleberry, otherwise known as false azalea. It resembles the flower of the evergreen huckleberry, but given most people don’t harvest the flowers before they turn into berries, I really can’t see how anyone would eat this by mistake.
This summer I had a simple goal: collect as many huckleberries as possible. But before I could blink, August had disappeared, and with it the low-elevation huckleberries I knew by heart. Not all was lost, however, because September brings with it a special type: the mountain huckleberry (right).
Blooming at about 4500 ft and higher in the Olympics, collecting mountain huckleberries requires long, often strenuous hikes, although there are a few spots closer to well-known trails near Hurricane Ridge. Before I learned this, I went looking for them in the Sol Duc, which is plentiful with berries, particularly black huckleberries. Unfortunately for me, getting to 4500 ft in the Sol Duc requires a backpacking trip, and I’m not quite fit enough to climb the Seven Lakes Basin with a 60 lb pack. Not yet, anyway (some people train for marathons and world-class sports events–I, on the other hand, train for food).
Mountain huckleberries look a lot like their black huckleberry counterparts. Their berries are almost identical. You can tell them apart by shrub size: mountain huckleberry shrubs are much shorter, closer in height to ferns than lowland huckleberries. They also don’t live in the same environment as the black huckleberry. By the time the elevation is great enough for mountain huckleberries to thrive, black huckleberries have long since given up.
Now, what do I plan to do with all the amazing huckleberries at my disposal this summer? Well, my first batch (mainly consisting of black huckleberries) was dedicated to jam, which I gave to the wonderful ranger Ashley before she drove back to Michigan for school. The next I ate fresh. The third and fourth have yet to come, but I intend to freeze one for baking later in the year and the other I’m going to blend up, although not for smoothies.
Olympic National Park has no policy on visitors collecting seeds in the park, which means you can’t. However, it does have a policy for collecting berries–one quart a day–and guess what are in berries? Seeds! A valuable loophole for my purposes, which is to populate my garden in Seattle with native shrubs and flowers in an attempt to a) beat out the invasive English ivy choking out our maple tree and b) do my small part in helping the native pollinators and ecosystem of the PNW. The idea of living memento of my time here in the Olympics is also appealing.
But how do you access the seeds in berries? Wild seeds have a very low yield compared to commercial seeds, which undergo testing and research for the purposes of delivering consistent product. Separating tiny seeds from each individual, tiny berry only to get a handful which might turn into a shrub sounds excruciating and time consuming.
Luckily, I had the opportunity to shadow my park’s nursery in Sequim for two days and they taught me the answer.
Hardy and versatile, the household blender and running water is all you need. Start by separating the berries from their stems, then take a handful–enough to just barely cover the bottom of the blender–and toss it inside. Fill halfway with water. Blend in bursts. The water will become cloudy and it will be difficult to see anything. Slowly drain a quarter to half of the water, then fill with more water. Repeat until the water becomes clear. As it turns out, berry flesh, stems, and nonviable seeds are all less dense than water and will float to the top, while viable seeds will remain on the bottom. Once there’s nothing floating on the top, strain into a mesh, set on newspaper in a dark place until dry, and viola! You’re ready to plant.
I’ve found the locations for every berry I wanted this summer, but I missed the season for most of them. No matter. I live just 3 hours away. I’ll mark their places on a map with some stickers for next year, and soon enough I’ll have a whole garden full of my favorite native berries for all the birds and bees of Seattle.