Go Ahead and Pick 'Em! Huckleberries Are Ripe for the Taking
Never eat red berries. Did you hear this as a kid? Abide by it still? If so, like many a Northwesterner, you’re missing out on one of our prettiest wild fruits in the woods, the luminous, globe-shaped red huckleberry. Sometimes it’s nearly fuchsia; other times, paler salmon with a slight translucence; at peak ripeness, it might be an enflamed scarlet. Always, the berries are captivating—and to some, too red and beautiful to possibly be edible. They hang from green bushes like bright dabs of paint, left for the beasts.
But wait. As unlikely as it may seem, these coquettish red berries are cousin to blueberries. They’re one of a dozen or so different species of Vaccinium found in Washington. All are edible and famed for their high concentrations of disease-fighting antioxidants.
It’s the look and taste of these particular berries that most interest me, though. Red hucks are tarter than some of our other species of huckleberry. A provocative combination of tartness and stunning color makes them especially good candidates for baking. Secreted into breakfast muffins or perched atop a dessert pastry, their singular color—of blood, passion, temptation—is impossible to resist.
Certainly there are red berries that should be avoided—the aptly named baneberry comes to mind—but identifying our native red huckleberry is not difficult. In the spring, the deciduous, lime-green huckleberry bushes stand out against the darker hues of moist lowland forest. Up to 12 feet tall, the shrubs can be told by their new growth, also green, in contrast to older, woodier branches below, and by oval leaves with pointed tips. The pale flowers are bell-shaped. In early summer, these bushes are polka-dotted with berries.
Red huckleberries are the first of all our huckleberries to bear fruit, and while I’ve picked them in Vancouver’s Stanley Park as early as late June, mid-July is a good time to roam nearby woods in search of them. Bring a bucket with a lanyard to hang around your neck; picking with two hands is faster than one. Even so, don’t expect to come home with bushels of berries. It takes a certain amount of drive and dedication to fill a bucket.
You might run into other huckleberry fanciers. A couple of years ago, not 20 miles from downtown Seattle, I came across a bear in the red huckleberry patch. She was too busy devouring this fleeting wild treat to care about me.