These Beloved Wild Berries Are in Danger From Habitat Destruction—But They Refuse to Be Tamed

The Pacific Northwest huckleberry, a tiny fruit with a big following, has never been successfully domesticated, but doing so might be the only way to keep it thriving

By Katherine Whittaker

Published on July 14, 2016

Every year, huckleberry obsessives eagerly await the start of the season. These squat purple berries look a lot like blueberries, but with a more sour bite, and unlike the summer fruits that you can find in just about any grocery store, Pacific Northwestern huckleberries only grow in the wild. And because of ecological disruption from logging and road construction, the berry's cult followers are beginning to worry, Atlas Obscura reports.

With limited supply, there's a mad dash in mid-summer to find and hoard whatever huckleberries are available from bushes that haven't been picked clean. Atlas Obscura goes on:

Add in competition from bears and commercial crews selling to restaurants and vendors, and it's no surprise there is little left for the recreational huckleberry eater.

The solution to the huckleberry shortage may lie in domestication, but so far no one's been that successful on any scale. Malcolm Dell, the founder of the Wild Huckleberry Association, says European settlers' initial efforts to farm the berry failed because they were trying to replant the wrong parts. Soon the berries "developed a reputation for being unfarmable." Since then, botanist Dr. Danny Barney has come close to replicating the berry, but was forced to stop researching when his lab closed because of budget problems.

The huckleberry isn't the only food that has evaded domestication. For all our agricultural advances, human civilization hasn't domesticated many new crops in years. Ramps, marama beans, yehub nuts, lupine, and potato beans all grow wild and stubbornly resist being tamed. In 2014, Wired examined the potato bean, a wild crop that has some serious potential. It's a protein-packed food that easily adapts to extreme temperatures—an essential consideration in a world that is rapidly warming. This plant, if domesticated, could do the work that potatoes and corn have done for hundreds of years already.

But, as Wired points out, “humans haven't domesticated a new staple crop for thousands of years.” This is a problem for an ever-growing human population. “Today, humans rely on fewer than 150 plants for nourishment, and just three cereal crops—wheat, rice, and corn—make up more than two-thirds of the world's calories,” Wired writes. “Those crops, by and large, aren't suited to a changing world. Modern humans have a chance—an imperative, even—to do it better. That's the appeal of domesticating a whole new set of plants.”

Of course, one of the huckleberry’s main obstacles to domestication is that the berry’s devotees are partly attracted to its wildness. But if development continues unabated, there's a chance most of those wild fruit lovers won't be able to enjoy the tasty berry in its natural habitat—or at all.

If you do find a way to get your hands on some huckleberries, try them in these Huckleberry Crisps.

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