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It’s been a rough year for berry picking in eastern Idaho, but it is improving

Living the Wild Life

After a very slow start to the huckleberry season, the recent rains in the area mountains have revitalized some of the bushes where there were green and unripe berries. With seven weeks of temperatures in the 90s and no measurable rain, some of the green berries were drying on the plants. The prospect of harvesting my goal of five gallons this year seemed almost impossible.

In previous years, I could average about a gallon per four hours of picking. This year, it dropped to one to two quarts in that length of time. It was tough as I, like most pickers, could not find any bush with berries in our usually consistent patches. Most of the berries were small, except for an occasional bush.

One day as I was coming out of the mountains between the Heise and Moody areas, I visited with two men from Idaho Falls who had been searching in their favorite patch with only about two cups for their effort. I come from a serious berry-picking family and all of us were having trouble finding any quality patches.

Our fortune improved a little this week as the picking has improved after last week’s heavy rains. The plants in some areas have been revitalized, the leaves have gone from wilting to a healthy green and the berries are more plump. One day this week, my 86-year-old sister and I got two gallons in four hours of picking. We were ecstatic with those numbers.

We still have patches that have lost their leaves due to attacks from hundreds of little white moths, along with barren bushes. There was some berry harvesting being done as spiders set up webs to capture the plant eaters. But we found several small healthy patches which were protected from the hot sun by a mixed forest of evergreens and aspens. The shade appeared to protect the developing berries, which were large, firm and easy to pick.

berry picking pic
A single huckleberry bush load with large berries in a patch of mostly barren plants. | Bill Schiess, EastIdahoNews.com

We have had three summers in a row of very hot weather and some of the huckleberry plants that produced very well four or five years ago have been replaced by thimbleberry and snowberry plants. Many of the thimbleberries will not produce their meager product because the extreme heat has dried up the blossoms and the green berries before they could ripen.

There are also large patches of apparent healthy huckleberry bushes that have no sign of frozen or green berries. They have no evidence of any production of blossoms, but in these patches, there may be three of four individual bushes that are loaded with over 100 large ripe berries. Could part of the reason be that there are not enough pollen spreaders, bees for instance, that have left these patches barren?

Many traditional berry pickers are frustrated and are looking for a loaded patch after failing to find many berries in their “favorite berry patch.” If you find one, please be “bear aware” as the patch my sister and I located had also been found by these pesky animals. There were several beds where the bushes and grass had been flattened and they had left a calling card of scat filled with reconstituted huckleberries and ant parts.

Hopefully with the cooling weather and a few more rainstorms, more patches will produce some berries so the bears can scatter out a bit and the late berry pickers can get what they need. It would be sad if we had to go a year without huckleberry cheesecake, huckleberry shakes or huckleberry-raspberry jam for Christmas gifts.

huckleberry bush
Since several rain storms, some patches of huckleberries have started producing green berries for a late harvest. | Bill Schiess, EastIdahoNews.com

huckleberry bush 2
In the last few years, patches of thimbleberry plants have replaced patches of huckleberries but because of the hot 2022 summer, their flowers and green fruits have dried up. | Bill Schiess, EastIdahoNews.com

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