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Wild Huckleberry Picking and Growing Myths

Updated on June 29, 2016
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Sandy Dell makes a living selling and promoting wild huckleberry products and information.

What is the Real Story Behind Growing, Picking and Harvesting Wild Huckleberries?

There are many myths in the outdoor community concerning how huckleberries are grown, using huckleberry rakes and the history behind the huckleberry rakes. The International Wild Huckleberry Association, in particular, has received fiery responses from readers attacking the use and recommendation of using huckleberry rakes. The Association has also been told repeatedly that huckleberry cannot and are not domesticated.

We would like to share with you some of the stories behind the myths and why they are just that -- myths!!

Huckleberry Patch in North Idaho
Huckleberry Patch in North Idaho

Myth Number One:

All Huckleberry Rake Users are Commercial Pickers Out Destroying the Resource

Most users of huckleberry rakes or "pickers" as they are often called, are NOT commercial huckleberry harvesters, but weekend outdoor lovers and families, trying to squeeze a bit more berry out of their day in the woods.

And when used properly, huckleberry pickers do little or no damage to the plant. AND, if they are not used properly, you get so many leaves that cleaning the berries becomes a nightmare. So doing a bad job of raking is counter productive. (And in terms of damage to the plants, the leaves fall off anyway not long after the berry crop is over. Rakes are not the problem.)

One the other hand, there are families where the man of the house, goes down the hill, cuts out stacks of huckleberry plants, and takes them up to the road where the kids can pick while setting on the road or the tailgate of the pickup ... this has nothing to do with commercial greed, this is very DAMAGING to the huckleberry resource. Something else will likely grow in the space where that patch once thrived.

Growing Western Huckleberries
Growing Western Huckleberries

Myth Number Two:

Huckleberries are a Wild Resource, Difficult to Find, and Cannot be Domesticated

While it does take a bit of asking around and driving in the mountains to find good patches when you are a newbie, there are tens of thousands of acres of good huckleberry habitat in each of Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and California. Of course, the primary species varies a bit among those locations - and you need to know where to look, which is a skill to develop.

And of course, huckleberries are quite easy to grow from seed, and other methods. There is even a booklet out on how to do it, and several nurseries carry seedlings of various wild huckleberry species, which they do in fact grow from seed and by other means.

An interesting side note, it is also easy to improve native wild stands of huckleberries ... that research was done years ago at the University of Montana.

The premier expert and researcher on western huckleberries (from the genus Vaccinium), is Dr. Danny L. Barney, with the University of Idaho extension service. (Dr. Barney is the researcher who developed the technology for growing western huckleberry species in a cultivated scenario, for example from seed).

Myth Number Three: - Huckleberry Picking Rakes Damage Plants and Should Not Be Used in Wild Huckleberry Stands

Dr. Barney demonstrating the huckleberry rake
Dr. Barney demonstrating the huckleberry rake

Dr. Dan Barney (or Dr. Huckleberry!) referrenced in the section above, has stated the following about the use of huckleberry rakes:

"The use of rakes to harvest huckleberries has long been a highly emotional one. During the early 1900s when there existed a large commercial huckleberry industry in the Northwest, many pickers used rakes or other devices. This is well-documented in "A Social History of Wild Huckleberry Harvesting in the Pacific Northwest" - General Technical Report PNW-GTR-657, 2006, USDA-Forest Service by Rebecca Richards and Susan Alexander. If the rakes damaged the bushes and berry yields, the pickers would not have been able to return year-after-year to the same sites.

"I have harvested all nine species of western huckleberries and bilberries by hand and with rakes. Used properly, rakes cause little or no damage to the bushes. Our western huckleberry and bilberry species bear fruit on shoots which form that same (current) season. In other words, when you are harvesting berries, the wood that will bear next year's crop does not exist yet. To damage next year's crop, you would have to either break off fairly large shoots or damage the lateral buds along those shoots. I have not observed either type of damage when using rakes to harvest huckleberries or bilberries native to the northwestern United States.

"Rakes do not work well for some species due to small berry size, twig conformation, or the way the fruit is borne on the branches. For other species, rakes can be used to quickly harvest fruits without damaging the plants.

"If a harvester is breaking off twigs and leaves with a rake, then the rake is not being used properly and the harvester is going to spend a lot of time picking few berries and much more time than necessary cleaning them. In other words, they are not going to be making any money and are not likely to persist with the rake.

"I, personally, do not support ... legislation banning mechanical harvesting devices.

"As for the U.S. Forest Service banning such devices, The only National Forest, to my knowledge, that does so is the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in south-central Washington.

"I am far more concerned with the practice of cutting or breaking the branches off and harvesting the berries from the detached branches. This practice can severely damage the plants.

"Likewise, I have seen formerly productive colonies damaged by people digging up the plants, apparently with the idea of transplanting them in mind. Particularly sad is the fact that, for several native species, most of the transplants will die. Container-grown (huckleberry) plants transplant easily. There is no good reason for digging wild huckleberry or bilberry bushes from public land for transplanting."

Dr. Danny L. Barney

March 7, 2007

A Social History of Wild Huckleberry Havesting in the Pacific Northwest
A Social History of Wild Huckleberry Havesting in the Pacific Northwest

Myth Number Four:

The Native Americans Never Used Huckleberry Picking Rakes, so Neither Should We!

The myth about the damage caused by huckleberry rakes comes primarily from some members of the Native American community who, for cultural and spiritual reasons, do not like the use of man-made "tools" for picking huckleberries. So they've made broad claims about how damaging rakes are, and this myth is becoming an unfortunate urban legend over time, perpetrated by media which does no fact checking before putting mis-information into print.

Just as a point of fact, some Native Americans DO buy commercial picking rakes for huckleberries; and the FIRST HUCKLEBERRY RAKES or "combs" known to US history, were from native peoples, as reported on Page 8 of:

"A Social History of Wild Huckleberry Harvesting in the Pacific Northwest" - General Technical Report PNW-GTR-657, 2006, USDA-Forest Service.

Native Americans used wooden hand-carved picking combs, or a raking tool made up of the backbone and one side of the rib cage from a salmon. Apparently those tools worked quite well. And I am sure they were not out to rape the wild huckleberries or damage the plants.

Guestbook - Your thoughts?

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    • profile image

      anonymous 

      5 years ago

      Thanks for the post. I've been growing a variety of huckleberries in my Seattle yard; two are planted in rotten stumps and the other two are planted on a "fake" stump I fashioned with some rotten logs and a bit of topsoil. They are all doing well, producing berries, and require very little attention.

    • Gypzeerose profile image

      Rose Jones 

      5 years ago

      Interesting, this fruit has a fascinating culture and history.

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