The Nature Nerd

Focus on: Cranberries

Highbush cranberries. Submitted photo

Highbush cranberries. Submitted photo

Cranberry dishes are a distinctive part of many holiday season feasts. They add a tart flavor and a bright color to the plate. But as common as cranberries are in the meals, it is likely that many people have never seen the plant or its environs. Cranberries are a native plant in our Northwoods that most never encounter. Not only that, but there are two distinct kinds.

The cranberry we normally think of is a low-growing, vine-like shrub of the bogs. The ground in the bog is wet, mushy and mossy. Often there are hummocks and mounds that one must navigate, and much of the year the area is swarming with biting insects. Stunted black spruce usually are the only trees. It is an environment that most sane people choose not to enter!

Actually, even in the bogs it is rare to find cranberries growing in sufficient numbers to make one want to pick them. The cranberries we see in the stores come from commercialized, agriculturalized, highly modified bogs. Store-bought cranberries are much larger, but are the same kind we have growing in our local bogs. The larger size simply is the result of selection over a period of many years.

There is a second kind of cranberry, the highbush cranberry. It is a strikingly different plant and it grows in very different areas, mostly moist hardwood forests. The highbush cranberry is a shrub that grows five to 10 feet tall. It has broad leaves and white showy flowers. Formerly I wondered how a plant so strikingly different could possibly be called by the name “cranberry.” Then, one day I tasted some; they tasted like cranberries!

Among the differences between the two plants are the seeds. Highbush cranberries have large seeds. These seeds affect the usefulness of highbush cranberries. However, some do like to pick them. They can be juiced, and sometimes they are used for jellies and even wine. One good thing about highbush cranberries: they are easier to pick, being on high shrubs!

These plants are a perfect example of the problems presented by common names of many plants and animals. The cranberries of the bogs and highbush cranberries are very different plants. One could make a long list of the differences. Yet, both are called cranberries.

Biologists feel a need to clarify these problems. They accomplish this by renaming all living things with formal Latinized names. The common cranberry of the bog is Vaccinium macrocarpon. (Technically, we have three species of cranberries growing in our bogs). The highbush cranberry is Viburnum opulus. These plants are so different that, as biologists have organized the world, they are in entirely different families of plants. Highbush cranberries are in the honeysuckle family, which also includes the fly honeysuckle and arrow-wood. The cranberries of the bogs are in the heath family, which includes blueberries and Labrador tea.

In the natural world there are many animals and plants that are look-alikes. With the cranberries, however, we have taste-alikes!

Jerry McCormick lives in Virginia, MN. He is a retired natural resources professional and is a self-described nature nerd.

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