In Mother Nature's Garden

The High bush Cranberry: Star of Mother Naturel’s Winter Garden

Looking for a little color in winter? Vitamin C? Fresh fruit? I’ve got the solution for you: high bush cranberry!

It’s also known as cranberrybush viburnum or American cranberrybush, its Latin name is Viburnum trilobum. Don’t know it? That’s a shame! As well as being bright red for most of the winter, edible and attractive to birds, this three-metre-high (10 ft) shrub is native to North America!

There are some 200 species of viburnum worldwide, all of which are said to be edible. The most similar European species is the guelder-rose (Viburnum opulus). It is also thought to be present in America, but the authors are not sure whether this is the same species or not. Ah, those scientists!

But beware: while none of the species in the Viburnum genus is dangerous to eat, not all are pleasant to the palate! Some are downright nasty, while others have very little flesh around the seed.

I haven’t researched all 200 species! So, if you’re anywhere else in the world, make sure you know what you’re putting in your mouth!

Highbush Cranberry, to Be Eaten… in Winter!

A bush with three-lobed leaves (you guessed it!), this viburnum sometimes has magnificent smooth red wood at the end of its branches that literally glows in sunny winter landscapes. The fruit persists well into the winter, making this bush blaze.

Look at the color of those branches!Photo: mimi_c
Photo: stamaradelt

Seeing these berries during the cold season, many might think they’ve gone bad… and yet, this fruit gets better after freezing a few times on the tree. It’s easy to recognize because… well… it’s one of the few red fruits still on the tree in December, January or February.

A little additional verification: the fruits are arranged in a sort of drooping cluster. It looks like a bunch of upside-down balloons. All the fruits are at roughly the same height, since they all start from the same anchor point (so not like a bunch of grapes). They’re bright red, round or slightly oval, and sometimes a little crumpled at the end of the season, but good nonetheless. Inside, there’s a single, large, flattened, oval pit.

Once you’re convinced you’ve identified the fruit, try it (by spitting out the pit)! It’s tangy, reminiscent of cranberries… and something else…? At the end, a strange taste, or rather smell… blow through your nose: it tastes like… a fart! Yes, yes, a cranberry-flatulence fruit! Laughter guaranteed with kids and grown-ups alike!

If You Like Jellies and Jams

“But Audrey… If it stinks, I don’t want to eat it!”

Don’t panic! The high bush cranberry is not a fruit that can be eaten just like that. First of all, the pit is inedible, and it gets downright annoying to spit out. Secondly, that unpleasant taste-odour, which is very funny at first, doesn’t make you want to eat tons of them.

The secret is in the cooking! If you like jellies and jams, this is the fruit for you! Although the aroma will spread around the house during cooking, you won’t be left with anything when you taste it.

Photo: Wilasinee Pongtaworadate

High bush cranberry jelly was once a winter staple in many Canadian families, but the practice has sadly been lost. Talk to your elders about it, and you might just awaken some fond memories. What’s more, it’s very easy to make: boil with sugar and sift to remove the pits: tadam!

Ornamental Plant

If you’ve got wet, muddy ground, near a stream, but still sunny, plant a viburnum. Right now, come on, come on: it’s criminal not to have this magnificent native plant in your home!

Well, OK, you can finish reading the article… and wait for spring. But don’t forget!

This bush is quite full in summer, providing birds with a hiding place and fine twigs for their nests. It blooms delicately in early June, attracting a multitude of pollinators. In autumn, it dons the warm colors of the most colorful maples with its leaves and fruit, and in winter, birds sometimes feed on its fruit.

Photo: rlevasseur
Photo: truezhenik

The best part? It’s very easy to grow because it’s indigenous. In fact, if you plant it where its roots are well moistened, you’ll probably never have to think about it again… well… except in winter, when you need a good jelly!

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

1 comment on “The High bush Cranberry: Star of Mother Naturel’s Winter Garden

  1. High bush cranberries were abundant wild in northern Minnesota where I was born and raised. Cranberry jelly was a staple in our cupboard and I have missed it since moving out west forty years ago. Can’t say I ever noticed any unpleasant order when making the jelly or eating it. Perhaps the oder is not present earlier in the season. We always harvested the berries in the fall after the first frost or two. Never remember anyone waiting until winter or using the berries that late in the season.

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