Originally posted on July 28, 2017
Image: A rare January huckleberry harvest. Photo by Tom Leskiw
by Tom Leskiw
When my wife, Sue, and I were looking to buy a home in northwestern California in 2000, we felt our combined experience in home ownership honed the checklist of attributes we most desired. I later realized that we overlooked one: a sizable area containing Vaccinium ovatum, evergreen black huckleberry.
Spring and early summer seem to fly by, pages of a daily calendar peeling off in a cartoonish blur. In mid-July, our huckleberries—tiny compared to their domesticated cousin, the blueberry—begin to ripen. This development not only alerts us to the passage of the seasons, but also transitions us to a less frenetic, more reflective pace. Collecting and eating wild huckleberries as we walk the trails “Crickleridge”—the name we call our acreage that sits on a ridge—grounds us, a soothing antidote to the pressures the work week.
Harvesting huckleberries must be done at a leisurely pace. Individual berries ripen on their own schedule. Usually, only 10-25% of a cluster is ripe at any point in time. On my harvest circuits, I revisit the same berry cluster several times. This process—the berries’ protracted ripening schedule—reminds me of coffee plants I’ve seen on the Big Island of Hawaii and demonstrates how neither plant can be mechanically harvested.
I wouldn’t want to portray my wife and myself as avid growers of food. We’re not. Keeping up our acreage and the landscaped zone close to the house seems to tap out our available time for domestic plant endeavors. However, delegating all our food production activities to someone else leaves us wanting. In A Sand County Almanac,Aldo Leopold presciently warned of Americans’ impending estrangement from our roots as hunters and gatherers:
There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace. (p. 12)
Picking our own berries reinforces that they come not from a supermarket, but from the land. Even a visionary like Leopold, in his writings six decades ago, could not have foreseen the scale to which our society would delegate our food gathering and preparation activities.
Freezing surplus berries enables us to revel in huckleberry pancakes two days a week, year-round. Sharing this local bounty with out-of-town houseguests is a special treat. This communal table takes on a deeper spiritual meaning owing to the considerable time required to harvest the berries. It is akin to when Sue spends three or four months cross-stitching a sampler that commemorates a marriage or birth. The purchase of a basket of berries or a run-of-the-mill wedding present can be swiftly accomplished, but the experience is heightened when substantial time is invested to create or procure something special. For instance, in fall 2007, we entertained guests from the East Coast, Barbara and David, intent on experiencing the coastal redwoods. Sue and I wouldn’t have considered their vacation checklist complete without morning pancakes containing freshly picked huckleberries.
On the trail system I built at Crickleridge, I take a hedge trimmer to the huckleberries and other bushes and ferns that overgrow the trails each season. Annual re-growth is so great that I began an experiment to see how a single leggy huckleberry bush would respond to radical topping. I took a chainsaw to the twelve-foot-tall bush, trimming it to four feet, and kept tabs on whether the re-sprouting branches encouraged denser foliage and/or more huckleberries. My experiment was a success: two years later, I counted 134 flowers on a single limb! Encouraged by the results, I started to top all our huckleberries to a height of about four feet, which I maintain by topping them every 2-3 years.
Wildlife, too, has taken notice of the extra bounty, benefitting from my active engagement with these plants. We see Steller’s jays, American robins, cedar waxwings, white-crowned and fox sparrows, chestnut-backed chickadees, and Swainson’s, varied, and hermit thrushes, as well as chipmunks and squirrels, dining on the denser berry clusters resulting from my efforts. One day, we heard the calls of pileated woodpeckers on the slope above the house. As we ran to the sliding glass door, a vociferous pair slowly made their way through the bushes, foraging on huckleberries. Our rambunctious terrier, Zevon, enjoys eating these berries, too, earning him the nickname “Huckleberry Hound.” Sharing this increased harvest with animals engenders a sense of wholeness and fosters an increased appreciation for the web of life that sustains us all.
We eagerly greet the onset of huckleberry-picking season. In 2011, I began to keep more precise records of each year’s harvest—noting first and last harvesting dates, totals collected each day, and the yearly total. Even with only five years of data, several stories emerge. Our biggest harvest occurred in 2011, with six gallons put up in the freezer. The next year was the foggiest July on record, which resulted not only in a harvest that was late, but also the most meager to that date: 2.4 gallons.
The 2012-15 drought appears to have taken a toll on huckleberry production, causing even smaller harvests than the 2012 fog. Annual harvests during this timeframe averaged slightly less than two gallons. Many of the berries that did ripen were smaller, relative to past years. Despite never having an aptitude for statistics, I enjoy studying my huckleberry spreadsheet, for it contains the story of boom and bust years, similar to the tale told by examining a tree’s rings.
Picking these diminutive purple jewels is slow; dedication and perseverance are required if one is to accumulate six gallons. I have a number of friends who grow blueberries. Mentioning to them that we harvest wild huckleberries often precipitates a conversation something like this: “You should grow blueberries. They do so well in our area.”
“Well, I could. But blueberries are so big, they attract the attention of hungry flocks of birds. All the growers I know have to fend them off, draping nylon nets over their bushes or constructing elaborate, net-covered arbors. You only grow a few plants, whereas I’ve got a couple acres of huckleberries. It takes a lot of effort to harvest them. Because our plants are scattered and contain smaller berries, they don’t attract huge flocks. There’s plenty for all.”
However, even as I voice these words, I know they’re a misrepresentation, for I’m afraid my true opinion would be misinterpreted as disrespecting their blueberries. Because the truth is this: in both taste and texture, blueberries are inferior to huckleberries. A huckleberry has a more complex flavor, part sun-warmed sweet, part bracingly tart. And its texture! Biting into a huckleberry results in a mini-explosion, a faint audible Pop! due to the many minuscule seeds within its flavorful interior. Conversely, a blueberry crushed between molars offers little resistance; its interior pulp is flaccid, uninspired. The plant breeders’ quest for a larger huckleberry sacrificed taste in the resulting blueberry. Thus selectively bred, a blueberry bears no more resemblance to a huckleberry than a teacup Chihuahua does to a timber wolf.
As expensive as a drive to the market has become, foraging for berries isn’t about economics. It’s about reclaiming part of our heritage. The word “huckleberry” originally referred to the circumboreal species Vaccinium myrtillus native to Europe found as far north and east as Siberia. In both Old World and New, berries were an important food source, as the following words of ethnographer Leslie Spier (1925) make clear:
The huckleberry patch some fifteen miles southwest of Crater Lake is a favorite camping place. [It contains] a deeply rutted trail worn by generations of Native Americans, as they dragged their families and possessions up the hill.
Our household’s interest in eating huckleberries came about by chance, but it dovetails nicely with concerted efforts by groups and individuals to bring a wide range of foods native to the U.S. back into common use such as pawpaw, prickly pear cactus pads and fruits, palo verde and desert ironwood tree beans, and mesquite pods.
Blueberries and huckleberries boast many beneficial properties that lower free radical damage to DNA and destroy cancer cells, according to recent research. Furthermore, wild huckleberries have over five times the antioxidant power of most other fruits or vegetables. Huckleberries also contain properties beneficial for the mind. A recent studyat Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that a high intake of strawberries and wild and domesticated blueberries can slow memory decline in older women by 2.5 years. “We provide the first epidemiologic evidence that berries appear to slow progression ofmemory decline in elderly women,” noted lead author Dr. Elizabeth Devore. “Our findings have significant public health implications, as increasing berry intake is a fairly simple dietary modification to reduce memory decline in older adults” (Jessica Maki, Harvard Gazette, April 26, 2012).
Initially, the health benefits of eating huckleberries didn’t figure into our decision to frequently include them in our diet. Now, realizing that a superfood grows just behind our garage reinforces our belief that slow food gathering has many merits, some of which are only now being (re)discovered.
Dabbling in local food production through our huckleberry harvest, I started imagining huckleberry pancakes made fully from local ingredients. In fall 2012, I traveled to the hamlet of Honeydew, located along the Mattole River, to watch and photograph a wheat harvest. Farming wheat and other grains was once a central part of life in southern Humboldt County, with 15,000 acres of grain cultivated at the turn of the twentieth century. With the rise of large-scale agriculture in California’s Central Valley in the 1940s, local grain production ceased, a victim of economies of scale. When I asked which strain of wheat would work best in huckleberry pancakes, wheat grower Lisa Hindley answered, “Sonora, which was grown throughout California following the Gold Rush.” I purchased a two-pound bag.
Later, my wife Sue used the Mattole-grown Sonora to prepare a batch of huckleberry pancakes, which we swiftly proclaimed her best batch ever. We felt satisfied to know that local ingredients—huckleberries from just outside our back door and wheat from not too far down the road—served as the cornerstone of the meal.
Fifteen years at Crickleridge passed quickly, and in 2016, Sue and I relocated away from our huckleberry haven. A desire to live east of the coastal fogbank and find a fenced yard for Zevon prompted us to search for a new home. We found just what we were looking for only fifteen miles away. However, leaving our huckleberry patch was hard. We’ve shared huckleberry pancakes while in Arizona with writer Ken Lamberton and his wife, Karen. I emailed him news of the move, speaking in glowing terms of our new spot. Ken’s a hunter-gatherer, from his trout-fishing forays, to sampling the ocean’s bounty, to relishing fresh fruit from his small orchard. I chuckled when I read his response. “Nice! Hope there are huckleberries at the new place.”
Fortunately, huckleberry bushes are common at our knoll-top Aerie House. As I poked about the garden area at dusk my first spring in the new place, a number of blueberry shrubs—despite a chilly and wet El Niño February—unfurled bright green leaves and cream-colored flowers. Clearly, the time is right for me to reconsider the huckleberry’s domesticated cousin.
Bio: Tom Leskiw lives outside of Blue Lake, California with his wife, Sue, and their dog, Zevon. More than three dozen of his works of essays, book reviews, and research have appeared in a variety of scientific and literary journals. An avid birder, he retired in 2009 following a 31-year career as a hydrologic/biologic technician for Six Rivers National Forest. Awards include The Motherhood Muse—first place contest winner—which he finds especially satisfying because the publication doesn’t normally publish work by men, especially those who chose not to parent. His website resides at www.tomleskiw.com.