Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Hunting for Huckleberries

Green huckleberry with flower still attached (c) John Ashley
Green berry with flower still attached
We took the afternoon to check in on western Montana's huckleberry crop -- strictly for knowledge, of course.  I've received a scattering of mixed reports, but no one has admitted to finding any good patches of ripe berries. So we headed up to Jewel Basin, a spectacular chunk of the Flathead Nat. Forest that's a little south of Glacier Park. It's one of the places where locals go when the park gets crowded.

Hiking a 4.5 mile loop that hovered between 5,400 and 6,400 feet elevation, we find a little snow in the shady ravines on northern exposures, tons of wildflowers on sunny southern slopes, and just a handful of scattered berries in between.
Green to almost-ripe huckleberries on the same plant (c) John Ashley
One branch, three levels of ripeness

Most of the huckleberries are still green, with a few having just set fruit - in late August. Most years, this area would be loaded with plump, purple berries. Our cold/wet spring and summer appears to have slowed the plant growth and reduced pollination. This year, ripe berries are hard to come by.

Wildflowers, however, are at their peak. The balsamroot are long gone and the lupine are waning, but just about everything else is coming on strong. Subalpine spirea, gooseberry, thimbleberry, mountain ash, cowparsnip, glacier lily, yellow columbine, Indian paintbrush, harebell, pasqueflower - even some beargrass.  Meadowrue, which finished blooming a month ago at the end of the road, has just set flower here at elevation. There are purple asters and fleabanes galore, while the fireweed and butterflies are found in mutual multitudes.

But alas, only the teasing taste of a few ripe huckleberries.  The wildflowers are nice enough, but winter will seem a little colder without a stash of wild huckleberries to help us through to next summer.