The first time I spotted a highbush cranberry bush (Viburnum opulus), I was riding my bike along a ditch in early December. Nestled up against the Rocky Mountains, it had been freezing hard for months by that time, and it was rare to see anything left to forage, let alone finding bright red berries. I had to stop my bike and investigate the fruit that had caught my eye.
There’s an old wives’ tale that if a bird won’t eat a fruit, it’s poisonous. It turns out that isn’t true for many fruits, including highbush cranberries. But nature has its own wisdom. While these cranberries are indeed edible, most creatures avoid them because they possess sourness and a scent verging on funk. As a forager desperate for material with which to play, I picked those highbush cranberries and have every year since.
Due to their musky scent, in my house, highbush cranberries have earned the nickname, “stinky sock berries.” The smell of them is so strong that I even go to the trouble to cook them outside, so that I don’t need to air out my home after making highbush cranberry sauce.
In North America, V. trilobum and V. edulis, are the preferred species because they are less bitter. The ones I have access to are the ones forager Sam Thayer has dubbed “bad” highbush cranberries, V. opulus. They are native to Europe, but here they are merely escaped ornamental plants.
Look for berries during frost season
True cranberries are a member of the Heath family. Highbush cranberries are in the Honeysuckle family, and are related to elderberries, which can also have a characteristic musk. Highbush cranberry fruit, or drupes, grow on a deciduous shrub that grows to about 12 feet to 15 feet hight. Its opposite, serrated, tri-lobed leaves resemble those of a maple tree.
Historically, the bark of the highbush cranberry has been used for menstrual cramps, accounting for one of its common names, crampbark. In the spring, the shrub blossoms with fireworks-like bursts of white flowers, somewhat resembling hydrangeas with smaller flowers in the center, and larger sterile flowers bordering them in a ring. Highbush cranberry shrubs fruit in late summer, at first green then turning red. Each individual red berry contains a single flat disk-shaped seed.
There is some conflict as to whether to harvest highbush cranberries before or after the frost. To my palate, the V. opulus taste about the same before and after a frost, although they are softer and easier to run through a food mill after a freeze. The good news is that highbush cranberries are relatively easy to pick. The drupes can quite easily be pulled from the shrubs without a mess.
Some good food comes with a little funk
Despite their detractors, stinky-sour “bad” highbush cranberries have their uses. Some of the world’s most sought-after foods have a distinctive funk. Can you imagine haute cuisine without pungent foods like cheese and truffles?
Long cold winters with few plants to forage force quite a bit of creativity. Highbush cranberries possess a strong flavor, to be sure. But used with a deft hand, they are a great pair with game meats, offal and other strong flavors. One of my favorite ways to serve highbush cranberry sauce is with liver.
Needless to say, highbush cranberries are a food for adventurous palates. However, for those who dare to walk on the wild side, they can bring an unusual new flavor to the Thanksgiving table. Highbush cranberries marry particularly well with the darker, gamier meat of heritage breed and wild turkeys.
Highbush Cranberry Sauce
3 cups highbush cranberries, stripped from stems
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons orange zest
Juice of 1 orange
Pinch of salt
1. Pass the raw highbush cranberries through a food mill. Their disk-shaped seeds and skins should easily be left behind. You will be left with a pulpy red juice.
2. Pour the raw highbush cranberry juice into a heavy-bottomed pan and add the remaining ingredients.
3. Over medium heat, bring the ingredients to a low boil, so that large bubbles rise around the edge of the pot. Turn the heat down to medium-low so that the mixture remains at a low boil.
4. Continue to cook, skimming off and discarding any scum that rises to the top of the pan, for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the highbush cranberry sauce resembles the texture of jam. Test this by dropping 4 to 5 drops onto a metal spoon and placing the spoon in the freeze for a minute. If the sauce is ready, it will resemble the texture of jam after being in the freezer. If not, it will still be runny, and will need to be cooked down further and retested until it has become jam-like in consistency.
5. Pour the hot highbush cranberry sauce into a sterilized jar. Let cool to room temperature.
6. Refrigerate the highbush cranberry sauce until you are ready to use it. It may be eaten cold, or warmed.
Photo: Highbush cranberry sauce. Credit: Wendy Petty