December 29, 2021
Before I embarked on my edible forest adventure, I was aware that cranberries grow on low, trailing vines, but had no idea that they grow on bushes as well. High-bush cranberry (Vaccinium trilobum) is a cold-hardy shrub, native to northeast U.S. and Canada, that grows in wet woods, along streams, and on moist, wooded hillsides. The berries these plants produce are not true cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) but they look and taste similar to the “real thing.” Highbush cranberries produce the most flowers, fruit, and autumn color when grown in sun, but are shade-tolerant as well.
Highbush cranberry shrubs have a narrow, multi-stemmed base and wide canopy. In the spring, they are covered by bunches of white flowers that attract pollinators. In the fall, clusters of 1 cm tart, edible berries turn a deep red. If left unharvested, these berries can remain on the bushes all winter, providing food for birds in early spring. The leaves turn eye-catching shades of crimson in the fall. Highbush cranberries are firm and acidic until hit by a few frosts, after which they soften and sweeten slightly. You can process them into sauce or add them to baked goods just as you would regular cranberries. The bark of this shrub has applications in traditional medicine.
I installed the Wentworth cultivar of this shrub in my garden. Several of these ornamental plants are growing well and providing four-season landscape appeal in a sunny section of the garden where the water table often rises above the soil surface. Another Wentworth is thriving in a low spot that is shaded after mid-morning by a clump of trees. I am delighted to find that such a decorative shrub can thrive in these challenging habitats. From my observations, these plants have no pest or disease problems and require no particular care. They can be propagated through layering, hardwood cuttings, and seed. If you have a sunny or shady spot on your property with wet ground, these large, attractive bushes may serve you well, too.
Left: High bush cranberry in bloom.
High bush cranberries are attractive in the landscape laden with ripening fruit.
High bush cranberries hold their berries throughout winter for either you or the birds to harvest.