Discovering the Differences Between Three Species of Highbush Cranberries

Author Sam Thayer explains the differences between three species of highbush cranberries, ways to tell which highbush cranberries are edible, when they are ripe and tips on juicing cranberries.
By Sam Thayer
February/March 2002
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The confusion between the three highbush cranberry varieties has been going on for decades. Now perhaps you can understand why botanists stick with scientific names.

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Learn about the differences between three species of highbush cranberries. 

The July and November 2001 issues carried conflicting reader reports about "highbush" cranberries ("Cranberry Catharsis" and "Learning to Love Highbush Cranberries"). Such misunderstanding occurs because the common name "highbush cranberry" actually refers to three different species of highbush cranberries: Viburnum opulus, V. trilobum and V. edule.

John Venable, who found "highbush cranberries" to taste horrible, lives where V. opulus, an introduced European shrub, grows. The fruit of this plant is indeed unpalatable: I don't even consider it to be edible. The nearly identical V. trilobum, or "American highbush cranberry," grows in the northern United States and the southern half of Canada. Its fruit closely resembles the true cranberry in flavor. Every year I make lots of juice, jelly and sauce from them. Unfortunately, this species sometimes hybridizes with its distasteful European cousin (especially near urban areas), polluting its pure flavor. The confusion between these species isn't helped by the fact that many botanists don't separate them. One large nursery even sells the European kind labeled as the American V. trilobum. In the November issue, Kate McLaughlin wrote from Alaska, where V. edule (called "highbush cranberry" or "squashberry") grows. This species is held in the highest esteem of the three. No wonder her family raves about her jelly.

This confusion has been going on for decades. Now perhaps you can understand why botanists stick with scientific names.

If you want to try making jam, jelly, sauce or juice from American highbush cranberries (V. edule), here are some important tips:

  • Taste first! If the cranberries taste like medicine, then they aren't food. They should taste like cranberries. Good and bad bushes can be side by side.
  • Harvest after the berries have turned red, but before they have softened. Freeze and thaw, and they will soften so you can juice them.
  • Never boil with the seeds in. While American highbush cranberries may look and taste like cranberries, they do not have the small seeds of real cranberries, but a large single seed. The seed is very bitter and should be removed from the berry before cooking.
  • Remove all stems before crushing or pressing.
  • For a cleaner, prettier and better-flavored juice, let the juice settle in the refrigerator a few days. Then siphon or pour off the top juice, discarding the sludge that settles to the bottom.

Sam Thayer
Wild Foods Institute
Port Wing, Wisconsin

If you would like to grow your own true, great-tasting native Viburnum edule, you can order from the following company: Fraser's Thimble Farms, Salt Spring Island, BC, Canada.

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