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Many years ago, when we lived in Vermont and were learning about preserving all the bounty from our garden and from the wild, we discovered American High Bush Cranberries along a dusty back country road. The beautiful translucent round fruits hung in clusters from a thicket of bushes and in no time we harvested a good quantity to turn into jelly.
Living on a shoestring, we were eager to explore all the possibilities of free food for our growing family. We had rented a farmhouse on a hill for $10 a month with no electricity, with rough upland pastures, a small woodlot, and a large enough garden area for our needs. It was ideal for our situation (not enough money to buy our own land) but there was no fruit, cultivated or wild, on this farm, so finding High Bush Cranberries was a real bonus for us.
We were very lucky that what we picked were the fruits of the true American species, Viburnum trilobum, also known as V. opulus var. americanum and V. edulis. Had it been the European species, V. opulus, we would have been very disappointed in our find, especially after having gone to the trouble of processing those lovely red fruits (called drupes) into jelly. Beautiful, yes, but bitter beyond bitter, as we found out to our dismay years later when we were not so lucky in picking the fruit from the wild!
This happened when, after living for 30 years on Cape Breton Island on a self-reliant back country farm where we raised our own tree fruits and berries, it was time to retire and we moved back to the States to New York’s Champlain Valley. We returned to foraging for fruit, and as in Vermont, we discovered thickets of High Bush Cranberries along a dusty back road. So of course we picked them and made jelly, looking forward to putting away a winter supply as we had done in the past. Only this time around we were not so lucky. The beautiful cranberry-colored jelly, many jars of it, was inedible!
What went wrong? Perhaps others have done the same thing. Here’s some pointers to keep you on the right track, whether you pick the fruit from the wild or from your own planting.
A Description of High Bush Cranberries
The two species are very similar in appearance, both growing in thickets on bushes that grow from 18 to 15 feet tall and spread nearly as wide with arching stems, a rounded shape, and large, lobed maple-like foliage. Flowers appear in early summer in showy white, flat-topped clusters, 2-3 inches across. Similar to the flowers of other Viburnum species, the smaller inner flowers are fertile, surrounded by larger, sterile ones.
Both the American and European species are self-fertile, meaning that if you grow them in your garden, you only need one plant of a single species or cultivar to produce fruit. The berries are 3/8 inches in diameter and very distinctive in the landscape, hanging in translucent red clusters. They remain on the bushes well into the winter, perhaps not sought by birds because of their astringency and large, flat seeds, until all other sources are exhausted.
Pruned to a small tree, ‘Bailey Compact’ American High Bush Cranberry featured in my bank garden.
The native species grows from British Columbia east to Newfoundland, south to Washington State and east to northern Virginia, and throughout New England. The European species, originally brought into this country for ornamental landscaping, has become naturalized in Maine and in New York State as far as I know, and perhaps other places as well. It was the importation of this species that introduced the dreaded Viburnum leaf beetle to the U.S., first discovered in southern Canada, where it’s naturalized as well.
Both types are suitable to grow for their ornamental flowers and fruits. Superior native American cultivars with less astringent fruits have been developed, so these are a good choice for the edible landscape. They also can be planted as a screen hedge. Look for ‘Wentworth,’ ‘Andrews,’ ‘Hahs,’ ‘Phillips,’ and ‘Bailey Compact.’ This last cultivar grows up to 8 feet and can be trimmed into a small, elegant tree. I grow it as the central feature in a former waste area (a bank with an old gravel pile).
How to Tell the Difference Between the Species Before You Pick Them
Even if you order the native species and cultivars, it’s best to have a sure-fire plan to tell the difference between the American and European types, because nurseries may unknowingly sell the European species for the American one. Note that the American species may be offered under its older name, Viburnum trilobum.
Here’s the simple, no-fail test: Before you pick the fruit, check the shape of the plant’s petiolar glands. Translate: these are the rounded glands that grow at the base of the leaf’s stem (petiole). There is no mistaking that in the American High Bush Cranberry these are raised and rounded or convex. On the European species these glands are concave.
American High-Bush Cranberry Jelly Recipe
Since berries are very high in natural pectin, there is no need to use commercial pectin for a firm set. For best flavor, pick a mix of ripe and slightly underripe fruit.
• 4 cups extracted juice
• 3 cups sugar
1. Wash fruit, just cover with water, bring to a boil and simmer until tender. Wild fruit gives off a musty odor, less or not present in cultivars.
2. Drain cooked fruit overnight in a jelly bag contrived from several layers of cheesecloth.
3. Measure fruit, pour into a wide-mouth1-gallon stainless steel pot, bring to a boil and stir in sugar.
4. Bring back to a rolling boil and boil hard for about 7 or 8 minutes (toss in a small piece of butter to subside mixture) until a small amount slightly wrinkles when you blow on it to cool, or when it slides of the spoon instead of dripping off.
5. Pour into scalded jelly jars that can be sealed tight with canning jar lids with rings.
For other unusual fruits see my book, Jams, Jellies, and Sweet Preserves, available at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS online bookstore.
Jo Ann Gardner is a noted plantswoman, lecturer and author of several books on old-fashioned fruits, herbs, the cottage garden, and most recently, Seeds of Transcendence: Understanding the Hebrew Bible Through Plants. She and her husband live in the Adirondacks where they maintain poultry flocks and extensive gardens.
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