If I told you that Highbush Cranberry berries are “very mildly toxic “and may “cause vomiting or diarrhea if eaten in large amounts,” would you eat one? Well, yes, of course you would. All the good things in life have the potential of inducing vomiting or diarrhea when eaten in large amounts. I cite Twinkies and Corn Nuts as prime examples of this phenomenon. Almonds contain cyanide. If you ate an entire grain elevator full of almonds over a short period of time, you would die – not from cyanide poisoning, however, but from gluttony and embarrassment. Moderation is the key here.
I bring this topic up, figuratively, in order to discuss the relative merits of Highbush Cranberry berries. These beautiful bright red fruit clusters become painfully obvious this time of year. They dangle from their bushy heights like luscious plump ambrosia clusters ripe for the picking. Each fresh snowfall places a cute little elfin cap on each ruby cluster. You are rightly tempted to try one of these berries and you are safe to do so. But, I warn you to consider a few things (other than diarrhea) before taking this step.
First of all, there are two kinds of Highbush Cranberry species out there. They are nearly identical but one is “good” and the other is “bad.” Secondly, Highbush Cranberries are not cranberries at all, they are members of the viburnum family that have absolutely no relationship to those low grown soggy red bog berries of Turkeytime fame. Finally, ask yourself the following question: “Why, if these things are supposed to be so good, are they still hanging on the bush? – they should have been eaten up months ago by hungry birds.”
Up until today, I was as ignorant of the first consideration as a deep fried twinkie is of common sense. Though I had long known that these berries were once used as a cranberry substitute, I could not rectify this with my knowledge that the Highbush berries in my neighborhood smelled like a combination of wet dog smell and that funky cornflake-like locker room odor. Needless to say, their taste matched their advertising. I simply concluded that our early New England ancestors were desperate folk driven into madness by a constant diet of turkey. Well, I was wrong.
There are actually two species of so-called Highbush Cranberry. The American Highbush, or Cranberry Bush (Viburnum trilobum) and the European Highbush (Viburnum opulus). The native shrub produces good tasting berries suitable for making jams and wines etc. while the European one bears acidic and nasty tasting berries. This explains why the Pilgrims moved away from Europe. Unfortunately, the foreign species has spread throughout the northeast and is found overlapping the entire range of the native shrub. Apparently, I had never experienced a true American Highbush Cranberry – the one used as a cranberry substitute, that is.
The two species are virtually identical in appearance except that trilobum has leaves with shallower lobes than opulus. Both are opposite-leaved multi-stemmed shrubs getting up to 15 feet high. Some scientists have suggested that the two are only varieties of each other. In the winter, when the leaves are gone, the only way to determine the difference is to try some of the fruit. If you vomit, then you have just tasted the European type. Simple. Encouraged by this new fact, I went out and tried one of the local fruits. You can see the results below. It was an opulus.
You’ll notice as you spit the contents from your mouth, as I did, that the berries contain large flat seeds that take up the entire fruit. The seeds are the truly bitter part (although I have noticed that some creatures eat the seeds and leave the fruit- see here). Should you come upon a genuine American Highbush in the future, be sure to remove the seeds before processing the fruit. According to the literature, the fruits should be harvested soon after ripening when they are firm and red. Some references say that they should be picked when slightly under-ripe but after the first frost. In the case of the European Cranberry Bush, you are instructed to pick the fruit at any time, throw them out, and then go to the store and buy some real cranberry sauce.
As to the final point regarding palatability for wildlife, you can do a brief survey in your neighborhood and note that most of the Highbush berries will remain throughout the winter. In fact, if your bushes are heavily laden with winter fruit they are likely to be the “bad” kind. In opulus country, birds will eat them only as a last resort. Apparently the action of freezing and thawing concentrates the sugar content enough so that they become more palatable by season’s end.
Even with my new found wisdom in this regard, I prefer to leave the Highbush Cranberry to the birds and the Pilgrims. I’d rather get sick on Twinkies.