By Phil Cooper, Idaho Department of Fish and Game
In case you didn't know, Idaho has 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 because it seems that just about everybody in northern Idaho looks forward to huckleberry picking - and eating season.
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" by highly respected and widely recognized plant ecologist and author Charles Johnson, call the same 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 a half 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, growing only about 10 inches tall. The berries are smaller - about 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 northern Idaho that they grow and produce berries under 2,500 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 when there are low temperatures but little snow.
Another plant resembles the 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 a study of Johnson's book showed 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.
As most people in northern Idaho know, huckleberries are delicious favorites of both people and bears. Bears in northern Idaho eat not only the berries, but in the spring they also utilize the flowers, leaves and stems, according to John Beecham, retired Idaho 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 while seldom getting 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 to eat the same berries you came for.
Several of my friends and co-workers were out last weekend looking for huckleberries. While they found some ripe berries, they found that in most places the berries were not quite ready yet. However, the plants were heavy with berries and there should be plenty starting next weekend and for the next two to three months.
Phil Cooper is the regional conservation educator in the Panhandle Region.