Today I spent the afternoon picking highbush cranberries up the road near the cabin. I hunted for them last October when I first moved in and was only able to harvest a handful of the last berries of the season. The leaves had already fallen and some of the shrubs still had a few of the red berries, hanging like little shining jewels. Having never picked them before, I had to approach an elderly neighbor walking down the road and ask him to peer into my basket and confirm whether or not these were indeed highbush cranberries. He ended up bringing me home to his wife who confirmed the identity of the berries and told me where to find more. This time around, almost a year later, I knew just where to look and was not disappointed!
Highbush cranberries are also known as crampbark, squashberry and mooseberry. The name ‘cranberry’ is deceiving as they are not true members of the heath family, but instead belong to the honeysuckle family.
This deciduous shrub can be found across Canada and in the northern United States growing in the woods or along riverbanks and streams. Ideally they prefer moist, acidic soil in partial shade. The shrub may grow up to 8 feet tall and has smooth reddish bark and opposite three-lobed leaves. In spring, small white flowers grow in clusters. By late summer, the small red globular berries, each containing a single flat seed, can be harvested.
When the berries are still unripe, they are hard, very sour and may give off an unpleasant musty odor, described by a few of my neighbors as ‘stinky socks’. After the first frost, they become soft, juicy and more palatable. You can use the bark, inner bark and berries.
The bark contains calcium, chromium, cobalt, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, tin and zinc. The berries are high in vitamin C and K.
Pick the berries late in the summer or in early fall, after the first frost, when they are soft and juicy. The bark should be harvested before, or after the plant has gone into berry.
- Antispamodic (due to a bitter compound called viburnine)- the bark helps stop stomach, muscle and menstrual cramps. Also relieves cramping of the uterus after childbirth. To prepare, whittle off some of the bark and simmer it into a tea or poultice.
- To treat bronchial irritation and spasmodic coughing
- As a gargle for sore throats and as a rinse for gingivitis
- Mainly in syrups and jelly (where straining removes the seed)
- Make tea: crush 1/2 cup berries, add 2 cups boiling water. Steep, strain. Sweeten with honey.
- Use the jelly on toast or on thumbprint cookies or as a condiment served with wild game
Bennett, J. (1991). Berries. Camden House: Camden East, ON.
Gladstar, R. (2001). Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health: 175 teas, tonics, oils, salves, tinctures, and other Natural Remedies for the Entire Family. Storey Publishing, North Adams, MA.
Gray, B. (2011). The boreal herbal: wild food and medicine plants of the north; a guide to harvesting, preserving, and preparing. Aroma Borealis Press: Whitehorse, Yukon.