Highbush Cranberry – Viburnum opulus

Wetland Indicator Status: FACW

Plant Family: Caprifoliaceae – Honeysuckle family

Synonym: Viburnum trilobum

 Highbush Cranberry Viburnum opulus

Highbush Cranberry fruit in winter.

Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum opulus) is a medium shrub found in a variety of wetland habitats. In spring it has clusters of white flowers, but perhaps its best showiness is late fall through early spring.  It is this time of the year, when all the leaves are off that the bright red, and sizable berries are a welcome sight on the bleak landscape.

Highbush Cranberries fruit are distributed by birds and other animals, but are very bitter and generally distasteful.  Why would a plant have terrible tasting fruit if it wants animals to eat it?  The main reason is to avoid competition with other animal dispersed fruits and seeds.  Perhaps it also to be spread in the spring, a favorable time for germination?  In early spring migrants and local animals find very little food available and a handful of fruits like the fuzzy seeds of Staghorn Sumac remain uneaten.  Therefore the animals forced to eat the fruit and spread the seeds.  It is a good thing these plant employ these strategies, because without them there would be even less food available to the early arriving American Robins, Eastern Bluebirds and other species.

The terrible bitter berries were somehow eaten and even enjoyed raw by Native American tribes.  I don’t understand, perhaps its like hot peppers, and sour foods that some people seem to enjoy for the challenge of being able to swallow it, or some food bias on my part.  The humble shrub also found use by Native Americans for a variety of ailments such as sore eyes and swollen glands.

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