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Natural North Dakota

Highbush Cranberry

Chuck Lura

With the big white blanket of snow covering the ground and the trees bare, except for the conifers, the landscape is lacking in color. But there are still a few fruits from last summer persisting on some plants. And the fruits I have been noticing most frequently in the Turtle Mountains are highbush cranberry.

Calling this plant highbush cranberry, however, is a misnomer. It is not a true cranberry. The closest wild cranberries are probably up in the forests of Canada and northern Minnesota. They belong the genus Vaccinium and are in the Heath Family which in addition to cranberries includes blueberries and Rhododendron. But the fruits of highbush cranberry are tart and red, so the association with cranberries is understandable.

Highbush cranberry is a shrub that grows to roughly 5-10 feet tall and produces candelabra-like clusters of bright red berries, about the same size as chokecherries, that droop from the end of small light gray to brown branches. As you might expect, ruffed grouse, turkeys, waxwings, squirrels and many other species of wildlife utilize the fruits. But they seem to persist into the winter more than many other fruits.

That might be a function of their sugar content. These fruits are not sugar bombs. Like chokecherries they are quite astringent. And also like chokecherries tasty jams and jellies can be made from the fruits, of course, with the addition of copious amounts of sugar.

Highbush cranberry may be found in moist woodlands from British Columbia to Quebec and south to Iowa and Pennsylvania. Here in North Dakota it is found north and east of the Missouri River and is perhaps most common in the Turtle Mountains and Pembina Hills.

Botanists now recognize the species as Virbunum opulus var. americanum, an American variety of the European highbush cranberry. Not long ago the scientific name was Viburnum trilobum, a separate species and reference to the distinctively three lobed leaves which is an easily recognized characteristic used in identification.

Highbush cranberry produces showy white flowers, bright red fruits, and attractive foliage which makes it an interesting horticultural shrub. So you might want to consider it as an ornamental.

-Chuck Lura

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