American highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum or Viburnum opulus var. americanum) is not a cranberry at all but a viburnum. The “highbush” name distinguishes it from the lingonberry or “lowbush” cranberry, a close cousin of the actual cranberry. The “cranberry” name also comes from the bright red, edible fruit. But this fruit, instead of floating on the water’s surface like a real cranberry, grows high up in a rather tall shrub in umbrella-like clusters.
American highbush cranberry likely grows in the Beverly Shores area but it can easily be mistaken for its invasive European cousin, European highbush cranberry (Viburnum opulus), which it very closely resembles. Distinguishing one from another requires close observation of a certain “gland” on the leaf stem with a magnifying glass.
Highbush cranberry can be grown in average, moist, well-drained soils in full sun to part shade. While preferring consistent moisture, it tolerates a wide range of soils. Highbush cranberry has attractive features most of the year. The white “lacecap” flowers, resembling some hydrangeas, appear in flat, 3 inch wide umbrella-like clusters in spring, The drooping clusters of bright red fruit appears in late summer, ofter persisting into the winter. The three lobed leaf has a deep red fall color. Highbush cranberry grows 8 to 12 feet wide and high, so it can form a substantial shrub. This means you might wish to prune it. Flowers are produced on the current season’s growth so if you do prune, prune it in late winter or early spring when the buds begin swelling or immediately after it has flowered to avoid destroying next year’s flowers
Though very tart, the fruit of American highbush cranberry is edible and high in vitamin C. Because of the tartness, it is usually made into juice, jams or jellies. The uncooked fruit of the European highbush cranberry may be very slightly toxic and should only be eaten in small quantities or it can cause vomiting and diarrhea.
If you are looking for a more compact form of this rather robust plant, the Morton Arboretum suggests a few varieties. Look for “Bailey Compact,” which only reaches a height of 5 to 6 feet and has a deep red fall color or dwarf American highbush cranberry viburnum (Viburnum opulus var. americanum ‘Compactum') with attractive lacecap flowers, a height of 5 to 6 feet, and yellow fall color. If the fruit appeals to you, try “Hahs” for larger fruit production. Hahs reaches a height of 6 to 8 feet and has red fall color. Also remember when shopping for the American highbush cranberry to check the scientific name on the label for Viburnum trilobum or Viburnum opulus var. americanum and avoid Viburnum opulus, which indicates the European version.
If you have questions about American highbush cranberry or other native or non-native plants, don’t hesitate to contact Terry Bonace (email@example.com), Candice Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org), or Bill Schaudt (email@example.com) for assistance. Also please explore our website, www.bserg.org, for further information on invasive plants and native replacements.