Edible Wild Plants: Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum Trilobum)

The Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum Trilobum) is a deciduous shrub growing to 4-5 m tall. The bark is gray and rough and has a scaly texture. The stems arch and are very dense, and the twigs are a reddish-brown color. The leaves are opposite, three-lobed, 6-12 cm long and 5-10 cm broad, with a rounded base and serrated margins. They are superficially similar to many maple leaves, most easily distinguished by their somewhat wrinkled surface with impressed leaf venation.

Despite the common name, this is quite a different plant from the cranberry whose fruit we eat in various guises at Thanksgiving.

Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum Trilobum)The Highbush Cranberry is actually not a cranberry at all, though its fruit, or “drupes” as they are known taxonomically, strongly resemble cranberries in both appearance and taste. They also mature in the fall, as cranberries do. The two plants are quite different, however. Both are native to North America, but the highbush cranberry is a Viburnum, a member of the Caprifoliaceae, or Honeysuckle family, in contrast to the ‘true,’ or ‘lowbush’ cranberry, which is a Vaccinium, a member of the Ericaceae—Heather or Heath—family.

The Honeysuckle family is comprised of about 400 species, with 11 tree species—and numerous shrub species—that are native to North America. They are located mostly in north temperate regions and in tropical mountains.  In North America, the highbush cranberry stretches from British Columbia east to Newfoundland, south to Washington state and east to northern Virginia, with an isolated population in New Mexico. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the highbush cranberry is listed as ‘endangered’ in Indiana, ‘threatened’ in Ohio, and ‘rare’ in Pennsylvania.

Highbush Cranberry FlowersThe flowers are white, produced in corymbs up to 13 cm diameter at the top of the stems; each corymb comprises a ring of outer sterile flowers 2-2.5 cm diameter with conspicuous petals, surrounding a center of small (5 mm), fertile flowers; the flowers are pollinated by insects.

The fruit is an oblong red drupe 15 mm long and 12 mm broad, containing a single flat, white seed. Plants begin to produce fruit at approximately five years of age; when animals, including birds, eat the fruits, they deposit the seeds in another location in their droppings.

Although often called “Highbush Cranberry”, it is not a cranberry. The name comes from the red fruits which look superficially like cranberries, and have a similar flavor and ripen at the same time of year. The fruits, sour and rich in vitamin C, can be eaten raw or cooked into a sauce to serve with meat or game.

Highbush Cranberry in Winter Snow

One endearing quality of Highbush Cranberry is that it is generally easy to pick in large quantities. The fruit is conveniently arranged in clusters at the ends of the limbs, and these thornless branches are limber – as if they are asking you to remove the cumbersome burden of so much scarlet fruit. I have often gathered more than a gallon from a single bush, and rarely does it take more than twenty minutes to do so. Highbush cranberry is also the most consistently productive fruit in my area, and has one of the longest seasons of availability – so I’ve never had to endure an autumn without any.

If you like cranberries, you will like our native highbush cranberry. If you taste some that you find disgusting, understand that they are almost certainly its exotic look-alike; don’t judge all highbush cranberries accordingly. It would be your loss, for the good ones are mighty good.

Edible Parts

  • Fruit

The fruits/drupes can be eaten raw (though not very tasty that way) or cooked, and like cranberries, they are rich in vitamin C and so have a tart, acid taste (the taste is best after a frost and when picked slightly under-ripe).

They are an excellent substitute for cranberries and are likewise used in preserves, jams/jellies, sauces, etc., which make delicious condiments for meat and game. The jam reportedly has a very pleasant flavor.

Uses

Ethnobotanic: The bark of highbush cranberry yields a powerful antispasmodic (whence the origin of one its American common names, crampbark). The water-soluble preparation (containing a bitter compound called viburnine) has been used for relief of menstrual and stomach cramps and asthma. The antispasmodic properties apparently were discovered independently by European, Native American, and Asian peoples. The action of this agent from highbush cranberry closely resembles that of black haw (Viburnum prunifolium).

Highbush cranberry is used as an ornamental plant and valued for its edible fruits. The fruit is commonly gathered from wild stands in late August

Wildlife: The bright red fruits often persist on the plants throughout the winter, good for ornamental value but suggesting that they may not be especially palatable for wildlife. Still, they are known to be eaten by deer, moose, foxes, raccoons, chipmunks, squirrels, skunks, mice, rabbits, grouse, pheasants, robins, cedar waxwings, and other songbirds. They are not normally eaten by birds until after they have frozen and thawed several times.

The native (American) plants of this species (= V. trilobum = V. opulus var. americanum, see below) are hardier as ornamentals, less susceptible to aphid attack, and have more intense fall color than the Eurasian plants, and they produce edible fruit. Fruit of the European plants tends to be bitter, and cultivars derived from the European species are grown strictly as ornamentals.

Where Does Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum Trilobum) Grow?

Highbush Cranberry Growing Area

How To Identify Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum Trilobum)

Highbush Cranberry Flower
Flower

3-4 ½” circular flat-topped, white lacecap flowers appear in June with the outer flowers being large and the inner flowers small and fertile.

Highbush Cranberry Fruit
Fruit

Large clusters of fruit start off being yellow in color turning to bright red, translucent berries in fall and hang on all winter.

Highbush Cranberry Leaf
Leaf

Maple shaped leaves with 3-5 lobes, they emerge in spring with a reddish blush, becoming green all summer. In fall, the leaves turn brilliant red to burgundy.

Highbush Cranberry Bark
Bark

Is gray brown in color and waxy

1 Comment

One Response to “Edible Wild Plants: Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum Trilobum)”

  1. Gloria says:

    Just wanted you to know that the Viburnum family is now considered to be in the Elderberry family rather than the honeysuckle. I found this information on a number of websites including Wikipedia while researching the plant which is in my
    front yard.

    Glad to have found your site, intend to read more of it.

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