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Cooperative Extension: Cranberries

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Highbush Cranberry (not a true cranberry)

Viburnum trilobum, also known as Viburnum opulus var. americanum L. Ait

Quick Links: FAQs || Introduction || Plant Description || Insect Pests

Some Other Common Names: American cranberrybush, guelder rose, dog rowan, *European cranberry tree, marsh alder, rose elder, red elder, water elder, dog elder, gatten tree, whitten tree, ople tree, snowball tree, crampbark

Introduction: The highbush cranberry is actually not a cranberry at all, though its fruit, or ‘drupes’ as they are known taxonomically, strongly resemble cranberries in both appearance and taste. They also mature in the fall, as cranberries do. The two plants are quite different, however. Both are native to North America, but the highbush cranberry is a Viburnum, a member of the Caprifoliaceae, or Honeysuckle family, in contrast to the ‘true,’ or lowbush cranberry, which is a Vaccinium, a member of the Ericaceae—Heather or Heath—family. The Honeysuckle family is comprised of about 400 species, with 11 tree species—and numerous shrub species—that are native to North America. They are located mostly in north temperate regions and in tropical mountains.  In North America, the highbush cranberry stretches from British Columbia east to Newfoundland, south to Washington state and east to northern Virginia, with an isolated population in New Mexico. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the highbush cranberry is listed as ‘endangered’ in Indiana, ‘threatened’ in Ohio, and ‘rare’ in Pennsylvania.

Plant Description: Considered a large and hardy deciduous shrub with a moderate growth rate of up to 3 ft. per year, the plant is typically 8 to 15 feet tall by 8 to 10 feet wide, with arching stems and a very dense, rounded form, making it a popular landscaping choice for use as a screening hedge [For a solid screen, plants should be spaced 2 to 3 ft. apart.]. It is noted for attracting wildlife, especially birds which benefit from the fruit, which can remain on the branches well into mid winter.  It is tolerant of frost, likes sun or semi-shade, and is successful in most soil types but does best in well-drained, moist soil that is rich and loamy.  Established plants can tolerate drought, but they are helped by supplemental watering during such periods.

Edible Qualities*: The fruits/drupes can be eaten raw (though not very tasty that way) or cooked, and like cranberries, they are rich in vitamin C and so have a tart, acid taste (the taste is best after a frost and when picked slightly under-ripe). They are an excellent substitute for cranberries and are likewise used in preserves, jams/jellies, sauces, etc., which make delicious condiments for meat and game. The jam reportedly has a very pleasant flavor. ‘Wentworth’, ‘Andrews’, and ‘Hahs’ are three varieties that are examples of the better-tasting, American type.

NOTE: *There is also a European variety of highbush cranberry (Viburnum opulus) that is described as having inedible/bitter fruit. If you wish to eat the fruit, make sure you plant the true North American species,  Viburnum opulus var. americana. You will often see it for sale under its old name, Viburnum trilobum, but keep in mind that although a nursery may list it as americana or trilobum, many people have had the unfortunate experience of discovering that what they ended up with was nevertheless the European variety.  It may also be worth noting that the European form (opulus) is widely naturalized in central Maine, and a trusted source has written to say that he finds that one–at least in central Maine–more often than he finds the native (trilobum/americana) form!

Insect Pests: Reported to have very few insect problems overalll, but one insect in particular—the Viburnum Leaf Beetle (Pyrrhalta viburni P.)—is capable of completely defoliating highbush cranberry stands (complete defoliation has been seen before in Maine–see photos below). Both the larvae and adults of the beetle feed on the leaves, severely skeletonizing them. The trees can survive this injury, however, and can go on to leaf out normally again the following year. Severe damage inflicted yearly, however, will kill the tree.  The Viburnum leaf beetle was introduced from Europe, and in fact the first North American populations of the beetle were discovered on European highbush cranberry plantings in the Ottawa/Hull region of Canada.  There are several fact sheets about the Viburnum leaf beetle on the web, including these two by Cornell Cooperative Extension and UMass Extension:

LEFT: Highbush cranberry shrubs in central Maine defoliated by Viburnum leaf beetle larvae. RIGHT: Four Viburnum leaf beetle larvae feeding on one of the branches. With all of the leaves already consumed, these larvae were feeding on the bark and inner branch layers!

FAQs About Highbush Cranberry

Here is a list of some very good questions we have received over the years, with answers provided from UMaine Extension Specialist in Ornamental Horticulture and Professor of Sustainable Agriculture, Dr. Lois Berg Stack.

Do you have additional questions? See also Cornell University’s “Highbush Cranberries” fact sheet, or contact Charles Armstrong, Cranberry Professional. University of Maine Cooperative Extension || Pest Management Office || 491 College Avenue || Orono, ME 04473-1295 || Tel: 207.581.2967 [email:].  Photos by Charles Armstrong.

Image Description: Picture of a young Highbush Cranberry tree

Image Description: Highbush Cranberry - closeup view of two newly-grown leaves

Image Description:

Image Description: ViburnumLeafBeetleLarvae

Additional Links

Contact Information

Cooperative Extension: Cranberries
5741 Libby Hall
Orono, Maine 04469-5741
Phone: 207.581.3188, 1.800.287.0274 (in Maine) or 1.800.287.8957 (TDD)E-mail:
The University of Maine
Orono, Maine 04469