Wild Plants of the Copper Basin: Low Bush Cranberry or Lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea); High Bush Cranberry (Viburnum edule)
By Janelle Eklund
The mild temperature at the end of August was rather pleasant in spite of the wet bushes on the tundra from the night’s rain. Since the rain had stopped, rubber boots and rain pants protected us from being drenched from the thigh high glistening leaves and branches.
Our buckets were ready to be filled with blueberries but I couldn't help noticing the brilliant red showing up on the low bush cranberry branches. These deep red berries and their shiny green leaf foliage hug the tundra intermingling with the blackness of crowberries, translucent red bearberries, lime green moss, and creamy white caribou moss - truly an amazing kaleidoscope of color! I lifted the cranberries to inspect their underside for ripeness and was greeted with a whiteness that told me - 'hold on there, we're still absorbing the sun and then will wait for a nice little frost so our insides will release its sugars.' A taste test confirmed the viewing test and gave a little pucker to the inside of my mouth, as well as a sour look on my face - hah!
Yes, the first frosts will help set the low bush cranberries and make them palatable and a delight to eat. Both Low and high bush cranberries are an excellent source of antioxidants, vitamin C and vitamin A. Therefore making them a great 'medicine' plant. Eat them or drink their juice for colds, coughs, and urinary infections. Janice Schofield recommends taking one or two teaspoons of concentrated low bush cranberry pulp in a cup of water for relief of an asthma attack.
Some people often confuse low bush cranberries with kinnikinnick. The low lying plants do look similar but kinnikinnick berries and leaves are dull and the berries are mealy. Low bush cranberry leaves and fruit have a nice 'glow' about them and the berries are more succulent and have that 'cranberry' taste.
Low bush cranberries are easy to store - freeze, dry, or add a little water and put in a cool area. If drying, dip them in boiling water to crack the skins and then put them in a food dryer at about 140°. I like to freeze them in quart zip lock bags and use them on my morning homemade cereal or conjure up a batch of cranberry muffins. I read somewhere to fill a glass jar with berries and fill to the top with water and store in the fridge. They are supposed to last for many months. I tried this method but didn't use them for 6 months or more and they seemed a little zingy. I think they would have been better if I'd used them up faster. Even though their taste wasn't so great, their color was still brilliant and beautiful.
High bush cranberries grow on tall bushes - some taller than me (5'1")! They have one large seed and the low bush cranberries have many seeds - so small they are pretty much undetectable when bitten into. Because of this, and a little more sour taste, I prefer the low bush over the high bush.
It is very important that you do not mistake high bush cranberry for baneberry, which is highly poisonous. Baneberries seem to form in bigger clusters and their leaves are a little more elongated and have more 'teeth' around the perimeter. Positive identification is a must, as ingesting just a couple of baneberries can be fatal. Refer to your plant book and/or plant expert.
So when cranberry season is almost upon us rinse out the blue from the blueberry buckets and get ready to harvest more of nature's bounty!
From my light to yours-
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.