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Foraging For Montana Huckleberries

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So you’ve made it to Montana, settled in, explored the area, and now you keep hearing about these Huckleberries. Maybe you’ve been sent a jar of syrup in the mail before, or even stopped at a distillery and got to try out the specialty huckleberry vodka (Which makes an excellent Montana Mule, by the way!), but you’ve yet to find these little delicacies for yourself.


It may take a while, but once you’ve found a patch, it is easy enough to get a bucket full, however, it will suffice to say, after finding and picking them, you may be more willing to buy them for whatever the going price is at the local market!



Where to Pick Montana Huckleberries


Huckleberries are the most commonly known Montana berry thanks to the tourist shops, making a lot of people think they only grow here. However, indigenous to North and South America, if the conditions are right, they are found all over the northwest, and sometimes even along the east coast. Montana, Idaho, and Oregon are the biggest producers though, hence the popularity there.


Growing on sagey-colored low bushes of forested mountainsides, they start to sprout here in July and keep producing until around September. They do prefer partial shade and at least a little moisture, which is why western Montana is the first choice when it comes to searching for the little buggers. Looking like a small blueberry, wait until they are nice, ripe, and dark purple to pick. Green and red berries won’t “ripen up” in your basket, just mark the spot and come back in a day or two.


Keep in mind that the season and the weather likes to vary based on the year and climate, so you never know how late you might be finding ripe huckleberries! Most of the time it is easy to tell whether you'll have any luck in the field by visiting a local farmer’s market. One week there may be buckets full, and the next there may be no trace. Keep in mind too that they ripen up faster in certain areas, with the Flathead Valley often being the first place they show up. Just because you don’t see them anymore at one elevation doesn’t mean a little further up or down the mountains isn’t still waiting to be harvested.


Berry Finding Clues


Huckleberry bushes grow in patches that can range from a few shrubs to an entire mountainside. Beloved by many and picked commercially, a large patch doesn’t stay secret long. If you hear of one, get there quick or not at all, they could easily be wiped clean by the end of a week. If someone tells you they are finding berries, take it as a sign they like you enough to let you know they are ripe, and only inquire further if you are feeling confident. It’s considered somewhat rude by some to ask for an exact location as spots are often jealously guarded, and you may get laughed at in the face.


Instead, inquire around about general areas and elevations, then go out into the forest and start hiking. Bear scat is a good indicator you are in the right place, but also that you need to be aware at all times! A lot of people like to take their dogs to scare away the critters, but bears are a lot bigger than dogs, and it wouldn't be the first time a pup was killed defending it's owner. If your dog won’t come on command, especially in a stressful situation, it may be best to leave the pooch home. Even if you aren't worried about the bears, smart dogs also realize that the huckleberries are really good and, being at perfect doggy level, often get to munching on the berries faster than you can get to pick them!


Keeping Huckleberries

Montana Huckleberries

The reason we mentioned earlier that you may prefer to pay the market price is that the berries are pretty small, roughly half the size of a blueberry. Go out with a small bag or bucket, but intend to be out there for a while, even if you find a big patch. Tiny little berries take some time to fill up even a small container, and that is if you can manage to keep them in the bucket and not your mouth. If you had a plan for the berries, decide on a recipe calling for small amounts, and then be happy if you come away with a good bucketful. The last time we brought a friend out to find huckleberries, she quickly realized it wasn’t her thing. While we had gone out late and the patches were pretty well groomed over, we still came away with about half a bag full. Her untrained eye had little less than half a cup that she decided was easier to simply eat on the spot than try and use in a dish.


While fresh huckleberries can be great in salads or fruit dishes, just like blueberries, they are also fun to cook with, use in preserves, or store for later. Adding huckleberry puree to marinades and sauces is a great way to get that rich Montana flavor! Baking them in a desert is another popular option, and it will make your neighbor's day. If you are unsure of what to do with your stash, simply rinse them to get rid of any bugs, put them in a ziplock bag, and store them in your freezer. They keep well, and they’ll be delicious later on!