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A Comprehensive Guide to Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum opulus)

Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum opulus) is a shrub that has one variety (var. americanum) that is native to the northern United States and Canada. This species is a host to the holly blue (Celastrina argiolus), Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon), Henry’s elfin (Incisalia henrici) and the baltimore checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton). Growing from 5 feet to 15 feet tall, this species grows in shrub swamps, low woods, streambanks, roadsides, fields, and swamps. The white flowers bloom from April to May and the plant is hardy in zones 2-7.

Taxonomy and Naming of Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum opulus)

Herbarium specimen of highbush cranberry (Viburnum opulus var. americanum).
Herbarium Specimen — “Viburnum opulus var. americanum at Marie-Victorin Herbarium (MT), Université de Montréal Biodiversity Centre” – Viburnum opulus var. americanum (Mill.) Aiton collected in Canada by Université de Montréal Biodiversity Centre (licensed under CC0 1.0)

Taxonomy

Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum opulus) was originally named and described by Carl Linnaeus, in Species Plantarum in 1753. It has kept this same name since and is a member of the Muskroot Family (Adoxaceae).

Varieties

This species has two varieties:

  • Viburnum opulus var. americanum: native to North America, upper leave surface is glabrous and has stalked petiolar glands
  • Viburnum opulus var. opulus: not native to North America, upper leaf surface is strigose and has sessile petiolar glands

Meaning of the Scientific and Common Names

Scientific Name

The genus name, Viburnum, derives from the Latin word for obscure or wayfaringtree. The species name, opulus, derives from the Latin for deciduous thicket forming shrub.

Common Name and Alternative Names

The common name comes from the resemblance of the fruit to a cranberry. Some other common names include Cranberry bush, Guelder-Rose, Pembina (American Perennial Gardens 1927), cranberry tree (Gleason 1918), cramp bark (Deam 1940), and Cranberrybush Viburnum. The exotic variety, var. opulus has been called European Cranberry Bush (Tyrrell 2003).

Physical Description

White flowers of highbush cranberry.
Flowers of Highbush Cranberry — Rosser1954, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
  • Plant Type: This plant is a shrub.
  • Height: 8 ft (2.4 m) to 16 ft (4.9 m)
  • Stem: The stems are erect with dark brown to gray bark.
  • Leaves: The leaves are simple, opposite, ovate, and have entire serrate margins. They are 1 in (2.5 cm) to 6 in (15.2 cm) long and 0.6 in (1.5 cm) to 3 in (7.5 cm) wide.
  • Flower color: yellow to white
  • Blooming period: This plant blooms from April to June.
  • Fruiting type and period: This plant has red drupes that mature in the summer to fall. The fruits are similar to cranberries.

Range of Highbush Cranberry in the United States and Canada

Range map of highbush cranberry (Viburnum opulus var. americanum) in the United States and Canada.
Range Map of Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum opulus var. americanum) — Range Map Credit: Kartesz, J.T., The Biota of North America Program (BONAP). 2023. (website https://bonap.org/). Chapel Hill, N.C. [maps generated from Kartesz, J.T. 2023. Floristic Synthesis of North America, Version 1.0. Biota of North America Program (BONAP). (in press)]
Range map of European highbush cranberry (Viburnum opulus var. opulus) in the United States and Canada.
Range Map of Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum opulus var. opulus) — Range Map Credit: Kartesz, J.T., The Biota of North America Program (BONAP). 2023. (website https://bonap.org/). Chapel Hill, N.C. [maps generated from Kartesz, J.T. 2023. Floristic Synthesis of North America, Version 1.0. Biota of North America Program (BONAP). (in press)]

This Viburnum is native to the northern United States and Canada. Variety americanum is native and is considered to be rare in the states of Colorado, Indiana, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Variety opulus is exotic to North America and has a scattered distribution.

Habitat

Swamp Habitat in Europe.
Swampland Habitat — Ina Hensel (telemakro.de), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This species grows in lowland woods (Macdonald 2003), moist woods (Bird 1961), rivershores and banks (Hosie 1938), shrub swamps (Thomson 1944), gravelly calcareous places (Wiegand and Eames 1926), swamps and rarely dry woods (McVaugh 1958), roadsides and field edges (Go Botany).

Hosted Insects

Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly on vegetation.
Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton) — D. Gordon E. Robertson, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This viburnum is a host to the holly blue (Celastrina argiolus), spring azure (Celastrina ladon), Henry’s elfin (Incisalia henrici), the Baltimore checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton), and the scarce fritillary (Euphydryas maturna).

Other Supported Wildlife

Blazing star (Liatris spicata) with bumblebee in McMullen House garden.
Bumblebee on Blazing Star (Liatris spicata) — Robert Coxe, Image

This species is a nectar source to other butterflies, skippers, bees, and wasps during the growing season.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does this plant have any ethnobotanical uses?

The Native American Ethobotanical Database shows that this species has been used for a number of pharmaceutical uses including a heart medicines, kidney medicines, a laxative, and others. It has been used as a food including a cranberry substitute and for jellies (Gillett 1913). The wood of this species is used in the manufacture of gunpowder (Sargent 1893).

How is this plant distinguished from other Viburnums?

This viburnum is similar to the small-leaf arrow-wood (Viburnum obovatum) and the Nanny-berry (Viburnum lentago). It differs from small-leaf arrow-wood in having leaves that are longer than 5 cm and from nanny-berry in having entire or crenate leaf margins (not serrate margins) (Weakley 2022).

Is this plant invasive?

This species has not been noted as being weedy.

Gardening with Highbush Cranberry

Red fruits of highbush cranberry (Viburnum opulus).
Fruits of Highbush Cranberry — Lestat (Jan Mehlich), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hardiness

This species is hardy in zones 2-7. If your garden is within these zones and you have the right growing conditions (soil, moisture and exposure), you may well be able to grow this plant. However, if planted outside of its range, the hosted species may not recognize the plant or be harmed by ingesting a different species with an unfamiliar chemical composition.

Optimal Conditions

This species requires full sun to part-shade and medium to wet well-drained soils.

References

  • Bird, Ralph Durham. 1961. Ecology of the aspen parkland of western Canada in relation to land use. (Ottawa: Canada Department of Agriculture).
  • Deam, Charles Clemon. 1940. Flora of Indiana. (Indianapolis, IN: Indiana Department of Conservation).
  • Gillett, John M. 1914. Meeting of the Botanical Branch — Cranberry. The Ottawa Naturalist 27: 176.
  • Gleason, Henry A. 1918. The Plants of Michigan: simple keys for the identification of the native seed plants of the state. (Ann Arbor, MI: G. Wahr.).
  • Heath, Fannie M. 1927. Hardy Wildflowers of prairieland: 1927 [price list]. (Grand Forks, ND: Fannie M. Heath).
  • Hosie, R.C. 1938. Botanical Investigations in Batchawana Bay Region, Lake Superior. National Museum of Canada: Bulletin No. 88.
  • Macdonald, Ian D. 2003. A rare plant survey of the Wainwright Dunes Ecological Reserve. (Edmonton, Alberta: Alberta Sustainable Resource Development).
  • McVaugh, Rogers. 1958. Flora of the Columbia County area, New York. (Albany, NY: University of the State of New York).
  • Sargent, Charles Sprague. 1893. The silva of North America: a description of the trees which grow naturally in North America exclusive of Mexico. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company).
  • Thomson, John W. 1944. A Survey of the Larger Aquatic Plants and Bank Flora of the Brule River. Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters 36: 57-76.
  • Tyrrell, Christopher D. 2003. Twenty-five Years of Change in a Dry-Mesic Forest of Southeastern Wisconsin. The Michigan Botanist 42: 95-102.
  • Weakley, A.S. and Southeastern Flora Team. 2022. Flora of the southeastern United States. University of North Carolina Herbarium, North Carolina Botanical Garden.
  • Wiegand, K.M. and Arthur J. Eames. 1926. The flora of Cayuga Lake Basin, New York Vascular Plants. (Ithaca, NY: The University Memoir 92.
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Robert Coxe

Robert Coxe

Robert Coxe is a professional ecologist and botanist who has worked as the State Ecologist of Delaware and as an ecologist for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. He is also a former Past-President of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science. He currently is an innkeeper at McMullen House Bed & Breakfast LLC and a web designer and owner for Silphium Design LLC.

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