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CRANBERRIES IN THE GARDEN?

written by
Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA
The Thanksgiving holiday is just around the corner. This is the time of year when cranberries make their traditional appearance at the dinner table as cranberry sauce and cranberry jelly. What many don’t know about cranberries is that they’re one of the many agricultural fruit crops that we produce in Washington. The largest producers of cranberries in the U.S. are Wisconsin and Massachusetts, but Washington, Oregon, and New Jersey are also major producers.

The American cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon also known as Oxycoccus macrocarpus) is related to its cousin the blueberry and both are in the same family as rhododendrons and azaleas.
Cranberry is an evergreen shrubby trailing plant that spreads by runners or rhizomes. From these rhizomes, upright ‘verticals’ or branches grow. Flowers and then fruit are produced at the ends of the uprights.

The plants are native to boggy areas and adapted to growing in wetland conditions not easily met in most garden situations, especially in eastern Washington. Perhaps its because of the popular cranberry juice commercials on television, most people think that cranberries grow in water all year long. That’s not so. While tolerant of flooded soils, they are not kept under water during the growing season. Flooding is used for harvesting and for winter protection and protection from heat where needed.

If you visit a cranberry bog in western Washington you will note that the sides of the fields are diked with soil. This is done so they can flood the field or ‘bog’ in the fall when the berries are ripe. The sound berries have pockets of air inside which allow them to float. These berries are then skimmed off the top of the water. However, berries harvested for the fresh market at Thanksgiving time are picked ‘dry’ when the fields are not flooded. This is only 5 to 10 per cent of the entire cranberry crop, the rest of the berries are processed for a variety of uses, such as juice and drying. The white cranberry juice available in recent years comes from cranberries that are harvested when mature but before they develop their red color.

(If you haven’t ever cooked cranberries for a whole berry cranberry sauce, you should. It’s fun. As you cook the berries they audibly pop as they ‘explode’ under heat. A sweetened whole berry sauce flavored with orange zest is wonderful.)

As noted, most gardeners can’t successfully grow cranberries in a regular garden bed or landscape. However, some do grow the American cranberry bush. This plant is not related to the American cranberry… they just share a similar common name. The American cranberry bush (Viburnum opulus L. var. americanum Aiton) also known as the highbush cranberry is a large upright multi-stemmed dense shrub growing from eight to twelve feet in height. There are more ‘compact’ cultivars that grow to a more ‘diminutive’ six feet tall.

With age, the shrub develops a rounded shape. The maple-like three-lobed leaves are green during the summer turning purple to red in the fall. It has pretty ‘lacecap’ white flowers produced in late spring followed by red fruit that persists through fall and into winter. The red berries looks a little like the true cranberry in size and color and they are edible, but very tart.

The American cranberry bush does best in slightly acid, well-drained moist soils, but is adaptable to different soil types and soil pH. Because of a shallow root system, it’s not a drought tolerant plant In our region it benefits from regular irrigation and an organic mulch to keep the soil moist.

Viburnums are a great landscape shrub. Give one of the compact or dwarf cultivars of the American cranberry bush a try, but don’t be misled by the name. It won’t yield real cranberries for your Thanksgiving feast. However, the berries supposedly make tasty jams or jellies, plus birds and other wildlife enjoy the fruit too.

Published: 10/27/2007 2:32 PM

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