I’ll be your hurtleberry

In appreciation of our signature berry bush

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

It’s a confession I make at the risk of committing blasphemy, but I’ve never thought huckleberries are much of a novelty. That’s not to say I don’t like them, nor that their introduction to anything from pancakes to wine doesn’t result in improvement; just that they’re not that big of a deal.

I’m sure this is due to long-term exposure. Growing up in the forest in Sagle, we had a huckleberry bush growing out of a stump in our driveway. It didn’t take much effort to pick them, and we did quite often.

During our frequent summer hikes and camping trips, my family would casually graze from the patches along the trails, and I have a distinct recollection of having access to so many huckleberries that a neighbor kid and me would dump them in his bathroom sink, fill it up with tepid water and bob for them like apples. One of our favorite summertime refreshments was a glass of warm water filled with huckleberries and muddled with a sickening amount of sugar.

Later, when I lived in a house on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Cedar Street, we even had a huckleberry bush inexplicably sprouting among (and hidden within) the weeds next to the sidewalk. It appears to have since been dug up and removed, so don’t go looking for it.

In my experience, it’s rarer to find a strawberry or raspberry in the wild. I’ve almost never found a blackberry outside the grocery store — or Oregon.

So it is that I’ve always found it weird but amusing that people make such a huge fuss over huckleberries. I’m shocked to hear what price they’re fetching on the “market” each summer. Last I heard, you can get upward of $80 for a gallon, which translates into a lot of money — especially for the people I’ve heard of who make picking their summer job, sometimes gathering hundreds of gallons in a season.

That’s nuts to me, but to each their own berry patch.

That doesn’t go for the “commercial pickers” who come in and rake the plants like gillnetters — a low-down practice that harms both current and future generations of berry bushes and robs the many animal species that rely on their wild profusion for sustenance.

Anyway, this is all to say that maybe I’ve taken huckleberries a bit for granted. This was made clear to me on a recent picking foray with my mom, wife and kids to a particularly rich though undisclosed location. As kids do, mine cut right to the most interesting question: “Why are they called ‘huckleberries’?”

I had so little idea that I couldn’t even make up an answer. As it turned out, I was due to host Monday night trivia at Idaho Pour Authority the next day, and so decided to do a little research in order to use that information in the form of a question. 

If you were at IPA that night, you already know this, but here’s what I found out: What we regard as huckleberries are indigenous to parts of North America, with varieties also growing native in the Andes Mountains and the highlands of Brazil. While known to and consumed by the peoples of those places for millennia, they were totally new to the Europeans who invaded and colonized the hemisphere with increasing voracity in the late-15th, 16th and 17th centuries.

When those Europeans — especially Anglo-Europeans — came upon the bushes, they assumed they were a strain of blueberries, with which they were well familiar back home, and called “bilberries,” “whortleberries” and, significantly, “hurtleberries.”

For whatever reason, that last one stuck, and from at least the late-1600s on that’s what they were called. Over subsequent decades and maybe centuries of changing dialect, “hurtleberry” morphed into “huckleberry,” and here we are today.

I have no explanation for why the blue huckleberries that grow in the eastern part of the continent are called “dangleberries.” They do things different over there.

So there you have it: Huckleberries got their name because of a 400-ish-year-old misidentification; rooted in a 500-ish-year-old Middle English term, whose etymology is unknown; and a “New World” mispronunciation.

Rest assured, I won’t be taking our signature fruit for granted anymore.

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