Mar 10, 2016

The Other Cranberry: Highbush

By Lawanda Jungwirth

Just 20 counties in central and northern Wisconsin produce more than 60% of our country’s total cranberry harvest.  These cranberries grow on vines in bogs and peat marshes.  It’s impractical for the home grower to attempt to grow cranberries and foragers definitely shouldn’t poach from commercial cranberry bogs.  Fortunately, cranberry lovers can harvest from another source growing wild along trailsides, roadsides, and forest edges.  You may even have one of these shrubs growing in your back yard. 

The Highbush Cranberry is not a true cranberry, although the berries are similar to cranberries in both taste and appearance.  The Latin name is Viburnum opulus var. americanum, which is important to know if you decide to buy plants for growing cranberries for your own consumption or to support wildlife.  More on that later.

Highbush cranberries are multi-stemmed shrubs growing 8 to 15 feet tall and 8 to 10 feet wide.  The arching stems give the shrub a dense, rounded shape, making it a popular choice for landscaping, both as stand-alone specimen plants and as privacy hedges. 

At first glance, highbush cranberry leaves might remind you of those of maple trees, but they are more wrinkly and the veins are impressed, or sunken.  Leaves are glossy green all summer and in fall turn an intense orange, red or purple depending upon the weather in a particular year.

In June, flat-topped clusters of showy white 3- to 4-inch wide flowers cover the shrub.  An outer ring of larger, sterile flowers surrounds each flat cluster.  The flowers are pollinated both by insects and wind and soon turn into 1/3-inch berries, starting at green then going yellowish pink, then orange and finally changing to a pure cherry red by late August or early September.

The berries are high in vitamins A and C and fiber and have more antioxidants than blueberries.   They can be eaten raw, but most people don’t enjoy the tart, acidy taste.  More often they are made into jellies, jams or sauces that pair especially well with fish and wild game.  You’ll have plenty of time for harvest, because the cranberries hang on the branches until late winter.  Birds will eat them, and in fact may clean off an entire shrub in an hour, but not until every other better-tasting food in the vicinity has been eaten, so they aren’t really competition for the berries at harvest time.

 And when exactly is harvest time?  That’s a matter of taste and opinion.  Some people think they berries taste better just before the first frost, while others prefer harvesting after one or two frosts.  You’ll have to decide for yourself on that one.  I don’t like cranberries at all, so my opinion is worthless!

Here’s the challenge.  There is a European Highbush Cranberry that looks very similar to the American version, but the European berries taste terrible.  It takes a little close-up detective work to tell the difference.  The little stem that joins the leaf to the branches is called the petiole.  You’ll see little nubby things called petiolar glands where the petiole joins the leaf.  If the nubs are rounded, club-shaped or columnar, the cranberry is American.  If the nubs are flat on top or slightly dented, it’s European.

If you decide to add highbush cranberry to your woodlot or landscape, give them a spot in sun or part shade.   They will grow fine in most soils, but their preference is for moist but well-drained soil that is rich and loamy.  They are drought tolerant once established.  And remember – Buy American.

Freezing

Choose firm glossy berries.  Remove stems, leaves and shriveled berries.  Rinse if needed, and drain.  Spread berries in a single layer on a cookie sheet and place in the freezer.  When frozen, transfer to freezer bags or containers.  Use within two years.

Extracting Juice

For 2 cups of juice, combine 4 cups highbush cranberries with 1 cup water.  Crush berries and simmer 10 minutes.  Strain through a jelly bag or layers of cheesecloth.  For clear juice, do not twist or press jelly bag or cheesecloth.  Juice may be frozen or canned.  

Pureeing

For 2 cups of puree, combine 4 cups highbush cranberries with 1 cup water.  Crush berries and simmer 10 minutes. Force through a medium sieve or food mill.  Discard seeds and skins.  Freeze for long-term storage.

Highbush Cranberry Jelly

5 c. highbush cranberry juice

7 c. sugar

3 oz. liquid pectin

Combine juice and sugar in a large saucepan over high heat.   Stirring constantly, bring to a full rolling boil.  Add liquid pectin and heat again to a full rolling boil.  Boil for 1 minute, stirring constantly.  Remove from heat and quickly skim off foam.  Immediately pour hot jelly into hot, sterilized canning jars, leaving ¼-inch headspace.  Wipe jar rims and cover with sterilized lids.  Process for 5 minutes in a boiling water bath.  Makes 8–10 cups.

Spiced Highbush Cranberry Freezer Jam

1 c. highbush cranberry puree

1 c. apple juice

3 oz. frozen orange juice concentrate

¼ t. cloves

½ t. nutmeg

½ t. cinnamon

3½ c. sugar

6 oz. liquid pectin

Combine puree, apple juice, orange juice concentrate, spices and sugar in a saucepan.  Heat to 110ºF, stirring constantly until the sugar is dissolved.  Remove from heat.  Stir in liquid pectin.  Ladle jam into freezer containers and cover with tight lids.  Cool until set, then freeze.  Makes 5–6 cups.

Highbush Cranberry Apple Butter

8 c. highbush cranberries

1 c. water

4 c. unsweetened applesauce

6 c. sugar

1 t. cinnamon

½ t. cloves

½ t. salt

1 lemon, grated rind and juice

Boil berries and water together until berries are soft.  Put through a sieve or food mill to remove seeds.  Reheat with the applesauce, sugar, cinnamon, cloves and salt.  Simmer until thick.  Remove from heat and add the lemon juice and grated rind.  Spoon butter into jars, leaving ¼-inch headspace.  Wipe jar rims and cover with sterilized lids.  Process 15 minutes in a boiling water bath.  Makes 8 cups.

Spiced Highbush Cranberry Sauce or Ketchup

6 c. highbush cranberries

½ c. water

1½ c. finely chopped onions

1 c. cider vinegar

2 c. sugar

1½ t. celery salt

1½ t. salt

1½ t. cinnamon

½ t. pepper

1½ t. allspice

1½ t. ground cloves

Cook cranberries in water until soft, then put through a food mill or a sieve to remove seeds.  Add onions, vinegar, sugar and spices.  Boil until the mixture thickens.  Immediately pour into hot canning jars, leaving ¼-inch headspace.  Wipe jar rims and cover with sterilized lids.  Process 10 minutes in a boiling water bath.  Serve with poultry, meat or baked beans.  Makes 4 cups.

*To freeze, adjust headspace to 1½ inches, or store in the refrigerator and use within three days.