While taking time to give thanks for our great bounty this month, we might include Viburnum opulus var. americanum, the highbush cranberry.
If you’ve ever dreamed of making Thanksgiving cranberry sauce from your own fruit, dream no more. While lowbush (the true cranberry) cranberries likely wouldn’t grow here, highbush cranberries can.
Variously called squashberry, mooseberry, moosewood viburnum, lowbush cranberry, few-flowered highbush cranberry, pembina, pimbina, or moosomin (in Cree Language), highbush cranberries (not a true cranberry) produce red fruits very much like the traditional true cranberry bush. Both high- and lowbush cranberries are North American natives.
Although the fruit (or drupes) strongly resemble true cranberries in taste, appearance, and autumn maturing, these two plants are quite different. While lowbush cranberries are in the Ericaceae, heather or heath family, the highbush is in the Caprifoliaceae, honeysuckle family. This family has some 400 species with 11 trees and many shrubs, all native to North America.
Highbush cranberries can be found across the US and Canada: from Alaska to Oregon in the west, and east to northern Virginia, with isolated populations in New Mexico. The Natural Resources Conservation Service lists highbush cranberries as “endangered” in Indiana, “rare” in Pennsylvania, and “threatened” in Ohio.
An important staple, Native Americans consumed them fresh and dried, especially in pemmican. They also used the bark for coughs and digestive disorders, leaves and twigs to gargle for sore throats, and stems for birch-bark basket rims.
Today we can dry them and use them as true cranberries for making jams, jellies, juices, and, of course, the traditional Thanksgiving cranberry sauce. Like true cranberries, they have high vitamin C, phytonutrients, and anthocyanin content. The American variety, which can be identified by convex petiole tops where they meet the leaf blade, is the edible variety. The berries of the Viburnum opulus var. Americanum do have a mild toxicity, so that eating large amounts could cause stomach upset. Inedible European varieties have concave petioles with sunken tops. Although challenging, make sure you know which you’re getting if you want edible fruit!
Topping out at 8 to 10 feet tall, and similarly wide, American highbush cranberries make wonderful edible landscape shrubs with attractive woody bark and glossy, dark green, slightly crinkled, maple-like leaves that turn red-gold or purplish-red in autumn. They prefer filtered afternoon light, and rich, moist, well-drained soil, though they are drought tolerant. Short drip-line sprayers do best to keep surrounding soil wet but not too soggy.
May to June brings a bounty of two different petite-white flowers. The outer, very showy ring of 5 petal florets is sterile, but within them are similarly-shaped smaller 1/4” clusters of fertile florets. Viburnum are pollinated by wind and insects. Fruiting starts at about 5 years. After flowering, fruits form in green clusters, turning to ruby-red by late August-September. They’ll not only stay on the bush, but also will taste best when harvested after a frost. This makes them sweeter, more intensely flavored, and easier to pick than their ground-hugging counterparts. Plus, you’ll get rave reviews for growing the berries for that traditionally expected Thanksgiving sauce. Enjoy!
Highbush Cranberry Sauce
3 cups highbush cranberries, stems removed and put through food mill or food processor then a sieve to remove seeds and stems
1 quince fruit, washed and diced
¾ to 1 cup organic sugar, honey or agave
Zest and juice from one each organic orange and lemon
1/2 cup port wine or organic apple juice
2 tablespoons fresh minced ginger root
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
Pour cranberry pulp into a medium to large, heavy pot along with quince and all other ingredients. Bring mixture to a boil while stirring. Turn heat down to medium-low or to a bubbling simmer. Cook for about 20-30 minutes until mixture is thick like jam. If still thin, cook another 10-15 minutes until thick.
Let mixture cool. Pour into sterilized jars or storage container(s). Keeps refrigerated for about 2 weeks or can be frozen. Use warm or cold.
The University of Maine
Native Plants PNW
Edible Wild Food
Note: Some sources sell this bush under its old name Viburnum trilobum instead of Viburnum opulus.
One Green World
They have American highbush and Kalinka (Ukranian sweeter variety).
They have Kalinka and Ukraine varieties.