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This is one of our more confusing native shrubs, since it is not a true cranberry and has a European cousin (Viburnum opulus) that is quite common locally. It grows up to 15 feet (4.6 m) high, with clusters of white flowers in late June. Fruits are cranberry-size and bright red, often hanging on throughout the winter. Leaves are three-lobed and maple-like, but vary considerably even on the same shrub. Buds are opposite and the tips of twigs die back during the winter. Bark is smooth and gray to light brown. The European variety is generally found around homesteads and parks and produces bitter fruit often totally ignored by wildlife. The native variety is more at home along streams, swamps and low, open woods. Its berries are tastier and seldom last through winter.
Can be found in damp thickets and moist woods, but will grow on drier sites. It does best on rich soils and full sunlight although it is quite tolerant of a variety of conditions.
If you can find sources of native high bush cranberry, cuttings are the easiest method of propagation. Summer cuttings work especially well, with success rates usually over 90 per cent. Seed takes two years to germinate but should give satisfactory results. Make sure to either clean the fruit or crush the berries between your fingers to break the skin before planting. Each fruit contains one flat seed.
Native high bush cranberry fruits are much more desirable for wildlife than those of the showier European variety. It is a preferred food only of ruffed grouse and cedar waxwing, but fruit is also eaten by over 20 other species. More importantly, fruits hang on throughout the winter and serve as critical emergency food when other sources are not available. Because the tips die over the winter, plants become very bushy as they get older. They provide valuable cover and are used as nesting sites by several species of birds.
Areas of Usage:
For landscape planting, it is hard to beat high bush cranberry. While not the best of our shrubs for wildlife, it is a very attractive plant and the persistent ruby-red berries are a pleasing sight throughout the winter. Berries are edible and were once commonly used with other fruits in pies and jams. Around the home, plant high bush cranberry singly, in clumps or as a hedge. These plants can also be used as part of a windbreak, along streams or when planting the edges of ponds. Since they can grow in sun or shade and in moist or dry conditions, you have flexibility in planning where to use them. Unfortunately, they are sensitive to salt spray and should not be used along roadsides and shorelines.