Huckleberries are the best known of Montana’s edible wild fruits, as well as the state fruit of Idaho. (I have been unable to find a state fruit for Montana.) Unlike their botanical cousins blueberries and cranberries, huckleberries have never been domesticated. Their color ranges from deep crimson to eggplant purple, while their pungent flavor (and odor) are among the strongest in the berry world.
Huckleberries grow best at higher elevations on sunny slopes. They ripen in late July through August, depending on the weather and rainfall. Since bears – brown, black, and grizzly – are adept at finding the very best berry patches, it’s smart to be on the lookout and avoid picking berries in the early morning or late afternoons.
For centuries, Native Americans used huckleberries as both food and medicine. As some have discovered for themselves, ripe huckleberries can have a strong laxative effect, while huckleberry juice is said to heal bleeding gums and mouth sores. Since huckleberries are excellent source of vitamin C, this may be true. The latest research into blueberries also shows that this family of fruits may contain the same disease-fighting polyphenols those found in red wine.
In terms of how to enjoy huckleberries in modern times, they can be used in any berry recipe – that is, if you can resist eating them in the wild! They are especially delicious in pancakes and, as I have mentioned previously, on top of ice cream.
Chokecherries are, by far, the most common and abundant wild berries in our part of the world. In 2007, they were even designated as the state fruit of North Dakota. Chokecherries grow as shrubs and small trees, in grasslands, along roads, and on stream banks in lower mountains and up into the Ponderosa pine forests. They are often a pioneer species in abandoned field and cut-over lands.
The value of chokecherries was well known to native peoples and to the European settlers. In fact, they were the most commonly consumed wild fruit in the northern plains and Rockies. For the Blackfeet and Cheyenne tribes, chokecherries were so central to the food economy that it were known simply as “berries.” The bark of the root was also used to ward off colds, fever, and stomach problems. Care should be taken with chokecherry leaves and other plant parts, since they contain prussic acid (a cyanide compound), which can be toxic to humans, horses, and cattle. (Since there seems to be conflicting information about the toxicity of chokecherry pits, I would avoid consuming large quantities of those as well.)
Today, as in the past, chokecherries make wonderful preserves, jelly, and syrup, as well as wine in some kitchens. The amount of sugar and tartness of chokecherries can vary significantly from to season to season, plant to plant, and even batch to batch. As my friend Teresa, who I call the ‘queen of the chokecherries’ says, you never know whether you’ll end up with jelly or syrup when you cook up some chokecherries. In the end, it may not really matter – since both of them are delicious on top of pancakes, waffles, or (again) ice cream. Chokecherries can also be dried and made into flavorful fruit leathers.
Sweet, succulent Wild Strawberries are small, delicate versions of their garden cousins. They ripen earlier in the summer (late June–early July) than other berries, but can be easy to miss when hiding under their wedge-shaped leaves. Often the best way to spot wild strawberries is by their creeping runners. Strawberries grow almost anywhere, including forests, fields, forest edges, trailsides, roadsides, and streamsides.
If you can get to the elusive wild strawberries before the forest creatures do, they are scrumptious eaten immediately – especially when they have been warmed by the summer sun. If somehow you hit the berry jackpot and have enough to take home, they are wonderful sprinkled on fruit salad, mixed with other berries as a dessert, or put on top of you-know-what.
For more details on Montana edible berries and other plants, visit the online guide at http://montana.plant-life.org. Each presented species has its own page with pictures, a full description and, where applicable, information about edibility, medicinal and poisonous properties.