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Highbush cranberries grow on dense bushes that will reach heights of 4 meters. The small fruits, known as drupes, are round and measure 8 to 10 millimeters in diameter. They grow on thin stems in dangling clusters on the end of the plant’s limber branches. The bright red, and sometimes reddish-orange, Highbush cranberries are hard and crunchy once they ripen. The fruits contain one flat, inedible seed and the flavor is tart and acidic, much like a true cranberry. If the fruits remain on the plant after a frost, they will soften, though the flavor may slightly diminish.
Highbush cranberries are available in the fall and winter months.
Highbush cranberries are members of the Viburnum genus, and are not a “true” cranberry. They are part of the honeysuckle family and were named for their resemblance to the commercially marketed cranberry. Sometimes they are referred to as American Highbush cranberries or Cranberry viburnum. There are three different species of Highbush cranberry: the American, Viburnum trilobum, the European, V. opulus, and a hybrid of the two, V. opulus var. americana. The American variety is said to have a much better flavor and palatability than the European variety. Highbush cranberries are most often found in the wild and are a favorite of birds like the cedar waxwing.
Highbush cranberries are high in vitamin C and pectin. They get their red hue from the phytonutrient anthocyanin, which along with the vitamin C, offers beneficial antioxidant properties.
Highbush cranberries are used much like true cranberries, and are best-suited for jams, jellies, sauces, and syrups. When heated, the high amount of pectin in the fruit will create a gel-like consistency, and will thicken. The seeds are very astringent, and it is recommended they be removed before boiling the fruit. Like the true cranberry, sauces made with Highbush cranberries pair well with meats, game and poultry. Making juice may require freezing then thawing the fruits for an easier consistency. Once thawed, they can be crushed and strained to remove the seeds and skins. Strained juice can be diluted, sweetened, added to other juices, or drunk at full-strength. Firm, ripe Highbush cranberries can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. The fruits may be frozen for up to three months.
Highbush cranberries are an important source of food and shelter for the larva of the Spring Azure butterfly. The bark of the Highbush cranberry tree has proven useful as an antispasmodic to both the Native peoples of Canada and America, as well as to the Europeans who settled in areas where the plants are prolific. The bark contains a bitter compound called viburnine, which has been used to relieve stomach and menstrual cramps, as well as asthma. This led to one American nickname for the plant: Crampbark.
In North America, Highbush cranberries are native to the southern third of Canada, from New Brunswick in the east to British Columbia in the west. In the United States, they are found in the Northeastern states from Maine south to West Virginia, and then cover an area northwestward to Oregon and Washington. The European variety is native to most of the continent, as well as northern Africa and northern Asia. The trees often grow closest to bodies of water, in forests and along rocky shores and hillsides. They flourish in the wild and are cultivated for home use. The trees are often used for their ornamental quality and ability to serve as a natural fencing or border. They have glossy green leaves in the spring and summer and develop shades of yellow, red and purple in the fall.