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On the Trails: Cranberries

Posted: November 29, 2013 - 1:04am
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Lingonberry flowers are bell-shaped, in clusters, and the leaves are shiny and robust.  Photo by Bob Armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong
Lingonberry flowers are bell-shaped, in clusters, and the leaves are shiny and robust.

One day in early November, the Parks and Recreation hiking group wandered among the mining ruins south of Sandy Beach and emerged into sunshine in the muskegs at the foot of Mount Jumbo. A relaxed lunch was followed by a search for bog cranberries, and we found a few. At the edge of the muskegs we also found lingonberries, sometimes called mountain cranberries (and many other regional names as well). Both of these are related to the ever-popular blueberries, but the so-called highbush cranberry is not related to any of these and is not really a cranberry at all.

Both bog cranberries and lingonberries are dwarf shrubs, although you might not guess that they are woody-stemmed shrubs, just by looking at them. Both have red berries, but the plants are very easy to distinguish. Bog cranberries grow on meager, vine-like stems that crawl over the sphagnum moss in the muskegs and bear tiny, narrow leaves. Lingonberries grow on short, upright (usually) stems and have substantial, shiny, oval leaves. They tend to grow near the forested edges of muskegs in our area. The flowers are different too: Bog cranberries have very small, pinkish flowers with reflexed petals, exposing the sexual parts (rather like shooting star flowers, but much smaller). The name “cranberry” supposedly comes from an imagined resemblance of the flower to the head and neck of a crane. Lingonberry flowers are white and bell-shaped, often in small clusters. The flowers of both species are pollinated by bees.

Both species can spread vegetatively, creating neighborhoods of stems with the same genetics. Although both species can produce a little seed if they are self-pollinated, research on lingonberry has shown that seed set is significantly better if the flowers are cross-pollinated, that is, with pollen from a different genetic individual (and therefore probably not an adjacent stem). Both species have evergreen leaves that can photosynthesize carbohydrates, even in winter. And, like other blueberry relatives, the roots of both species of cranberry are associated with mycorrhizal fungi that help supply the plant with nutrients from the soil and maybe also from other nearby plants.

In North America, bog cranberries, and their domestic, cultivated, commercial version, are especially popular for sauce at Thanksgiving time, adding a bright flavor and color to traditional dinners. To the delight of cranberry growers, dried cranberries have become common ingredients of trail mixes and other snacks, scones and muffins. Lingonberries are especially well-loved in Scandinavia, where they are turned into jam, syrup, and sauce, but North Americans have learned to do the same, wherever these berries grow. I wish they were more common around here!

Cranberries contain anti-oxidants and have some anti-microbial activity against certain bacteria, and they are a pretty good source of vitamin C. However, being quite acidic, cranberries usually require quite a lot of sugar to make them palatable to most people. Although cranberries have been used medicinally for decades and probably centuries, many of the medicinal claims for these fruits are poorly documented by scientific studies.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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