Washington State University researchers are setting their sights on domesticating the wild huckleberry. Huckleberries are notoriously fickle plants. The mountain shrubs don’t transplant well and even huckleberry bushes grown from seeds seldom produce fruit.
But in a WSU greenhouse, cloned shrubs are producing berries. Scientists say their ultimate goal is a sturdy plant with high yields of the tangy-tart berries.
“The flavor profile of a huckleberry is legendary,” said Amit Dhingra, an associate professor in WSU’s College of Agriculture. “We want a huckleberry plant that produces like a blueberry without sacrificing the flavor.”
At the Pullman campus, rows of potted huckleberries are starting to display red fall leaves. They’re the cloned descendents of two huckleberry plants that Biotechnology Manager Nathan Tarlyn purchased at a commercial nursery several years ago.
Huckleberries growing in the mountains don’t produce until they’re about five to seven years old. But in the greenhouse’s controlled climate, the 18-month-old plants flowered this spring. Tarlyn brought in bumblebees to cross pollinate the huckleberries with blueberries.
Now, he has 2,000 tiny seedlings from this year’s berry crop, which will be studied for desirable traits.
Can the bushes produce clusters of berries, instead of the single berries found on wild huckleberries? Are the plants strong enough to handle mechanical harvesting? And most importantly, can they produce fruit that rivals the taste of wild huckleberries?
Time will tell.