As we head into fall, we start to hear all about pumpkin spice in everything from candles to cupcakes to milkshakes. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, because in Idaho it’s still huckleberry season, and you can still find a few of those tasty little berries around, if you know where to look.
But if you don’t want to trudge into the mountains in search of berries, how about growing some in your own backyard? Garden master Jim Duthie tells us more about huckleberries, and shows us a variety that you can grow at home.
Temperatures are starting to cool down and fall is just around the corner. And while the season for gathering Idaho’s state fruit - the huckleberry - is winding down, if you’re patient, and you look hard enough, you might still find a patch or two in Idaho’s backcountry.
Huckleberries grow throughout the Northwest, including Idaho’s mountains, and ripen in late summer. By now they’re getting harder to find, but a couple of weeks ago, KTVB’s Managing Editor Gary Salzman and his family ran across a patch of huckleberries near Brundage Mountain north of McCall.
There were plenty of plants, but the berries were few. Still, after a couple of hours, they managed to pick about a pintful.
Then last weekend they found a few more in the Boise Mountains near Placerville. There weren’t very many but the ones they found were sweet and juicy.
While lots of the berries have been gathered by campers and hikers over summer weekends, huckleberries are also a mainstay for other Idaho residents, the bears. Huckleberries are a big part of their diet as they get ready for winter’s hibernation.
Gathering wild huckleberries is pretty labor intensive, even if you find a big patch of them. But if you don’t have the time or the patience to trudge through the backcountry searching for these tasty little treats, I’ve found a variety of garden huckleberries that grow very well right here in my own backyard.
For years, I’ve grown these garden huckleberries in my backyard garden here in the Treasure Valley. They’re a little bit different from the wild kind that grow in Idaho’s mountains. Those are perennial plants that come back year after year. This variety is an annual that has to be replanted each spring. But it produces a bumper crop of fat, juicy berries. They may not have quite the same sweet taste right off the bush as the wild ones, but once you process them, they make the same delicious sweet jams and jellies, syrups, pies and pancakes as the wild ones.
These garden huckleberries have been the most popular thing I’ve featured on “You Can Grow It.” Since most garden stores don’t sell these seeds, I order mine online from seed catalogs like Seed Savers Exchange. Then I plant the seeds indoors in early spring with my other garden starts and set them out in the garden after the last frost.
This variety thrives in the hotter, drier valley locations. After planting, the huckleberry plants will grow about three feet high and about two feet wide. Other than watering them regularly, there really isn’t much more you need to do until harvest time. After several years of growing them, I haven’t found any pests or diseases that affect the plants, and I’ve always had an abundant harvest of berries, depending on how many I plant.
When the weather cools down and we get close to the first frost, it’s time to harvest the berries. Since the plants won’t survive the winter, either pull them up by the roots or cut them off close to the ground to make harvesting the berries easier.
These berries are juicy, so you’ll want to wear some gloves or you’ll end up with purple fingers. Pluck the berries gently off the plants, making sure to remove as many of the stems as possible. It takes a little time to collect all of the berries, but soon you’ll end up with a bowl full that are ready to use.
Once the berries are picked and washed, you can process them the same way you would any other berries, including blueberries and raspberries. You’ll end up with some delicious treats, like these jams and syrups that we’ve made. They’re also great in pancakes, and they make a great huckleberry bread for gifts during the holidays.
The berries also freeze well, so you can use them months after you’ve harvested them. I’ll share a couple of recipes for using these berries, and next spring I’ll plant some more for another delicious harvest next year. It’s something you might want to try yourself.
The huckleberry was named Idaho’s state fruit in 2000, and the little berries have only become more popular with folks since then, and many towns have annual huckleberry festivals late in the summer.
Here are a couple of recipes for using garden huckleberries:
Garden Huckleberry Jam
Prep time: 10 min. Cook time: 1 hr. 15 min. Total time: 1 hr. 25 min.
- 2 pounds (8-10 cups) ripe garden huckleberries
- 3 cups sugar
- 1 package pectin
- Juice of 1 lemon (or 2 Tblsp bottled lemon juice)
- ¼ cup water
- Sterilize canning jars and screw lids by boiling them for at least 15 minutes (*don't boil the flat lids that actually go on the top of the jar or you'll remove the gum/adhesive seal).
- Sort through your garden huckleberries to remove any stems. Then rinse them in a strainer.
- Put berries and ¼ cup of water in a large pot over medium heat. (The water is added to prevent the fruit from scalding or sticking to the bottom of the pan.) Bring slowly to a boil and allow to boil about 20 minutes to reduce water content.
- Add lemon juice. Boil for an additional 40 minutes. Many of the garden huckleberries will still have maintained their shape/form, so you might want to "mush" them a bit here. A potato masher works great.
- Add pectin and bring back to a full rolling boil, stirring until all of the pectin has dissolved.
- Add sugar to the boiling garden huckleberries and stir until completely dissolved (only takes a few minutes). Remove from the heat.
- Ladle huckleberry preserves into your sterilized, hot jars. You'll want to leave room for expansion, about ¼" between the top of your preserves and your jar lid. Dip each lid into the boiling water for about 10-15 seconds. Place lid on top of jar, and screw on rings—not tight, you want them to have a bit of give.
- Boil jars with preserves in them for 15 minutes, making sure the water is at least 1-2" over the top of the lid so that air bubbles out of the jars.
- Remove jars from boiling water and place them on heat-proof countertop or stove top. Each jar should make a single "pop" sound shortly after being removed from boiling water, indicating that it has sealed. The lid will also indent downward. If a jar does not seal, place back in boiling water for 5 more minutes and repeat the process. Do NOT eat unsealed preserves. If you can't get your jars to seal or don't feel like going through the steps above, freeze them or refrigerate them.
Garden Huckleberry Syrup
- 1 ¼ cup garden huckleberry juice (mash huckleberries and strain the juice to remove seeds)
- 1 ¾ cup sugar
- 1 Tblsp lemon juice
1. Mix juice and sugar in a large pan. Bring mixture to rolling boil. Continue to boil 1 minute.
2. Remove the syrup from heat and skim off any foam. Pour the syrup into clean, hot jars, following the manufacturer’s directions for sealing the jars. Or keep the syrup in the refrigerator. Refrigerate any opened jars of syrup.
3. This recipe produces a fairly thin syrup. For a thicker syrup, use 1 ½ cups sugar and ¼ cup of corn syrup in the recipe. Do not add more sugar or boil longer to thicken the syrup as it will cause jelling to occur.
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