Thursday, August 22, 2013

Highbush Cranberry de-befuddled

Viburnum edule: the real deal
Highbush Cranberries are one of the most confusing groups of edible plants in our region on account of poorly understood identifying characteristics and unimaginative common names. In the Pacific Northwest, we have two native species: Viburnum edule and occasionally V. trilobum (also called V. opulus var. americanum), as well as an introduced European species, V. opulus var. opulus. Though they lack specificity, the common names of our two native species are descriptive. They both have fruit that look and taste like cranberries, and they both grow on bushes (certainly higher than bog cranberries). The introduced species has such a similar appearance to the native species that I’ve been fooled into eating it twice, and frequently see it sold in nurseries or planted in restoration projects as either of our two native species; however, the taste is terrible enough to motivate proper identification. If you are already having trouble keeping the three plants separated in your mind, read on because in this article, I start by providing an in depth description of Viburnum edule with simple features and close-up photographs to help distinguish it from the nasty V. opulus var. opulus. Also included is a dichotomous key I developed for the analytically minded. Finally, I provide an ethnobotanical summary of V. edule—which is widely eaten across Canada and along the Northwest Coast by Indigenous People.

Viburnum edule is a trailing to upright deciduous shrub that can reach 8 feet in height. New shoots are smooth, green, and sporadically covered with lenticels; older stems are light brown, maroon, or reddish brown. Leaves are opposite, 1-4 inches long and often equally as wide with three forward pointing lobes (occasionally unlobed) and coarsely toothed margins; the lower surfaces can be sparsely hairy, dull green throughout the spring and summer but turning yellow to bright red in the late summer to early fall. Flowers are white and borne in flat topped cymes on lateral branches with 1 pair of leaves. All the flowers are fertile, unlike V. opulus and V. trilobum, which have a peripheral ring of large showy, but infertile, flowers. Flowers usually bloom from May to July. Fruit is initially green, then yellow, then assuming streaks of red until it ripens to a solid, vibrant red color in late August. Fruit are ovate to round, 9-11 mm tall and 8-10 mm wide with a slight dimple at the attachment point. When first ripe they are firm, but they can persist on the bush for several months and soften with frost.

The small fruiting clusters of V. edule are borne on branches with just 1 pair of leaves

Distribution of V. edule (Courtesy of E-Flora BC)
Viburnum edule is found in the Pacific Northwest from Alaska to northern Oregon. They are common in Alaska and British Columbia and extend southward sporadically through the Cascades and foothills to Oregon HWY 20, and are found to the east in the Columbia range to northeastern Washington, and to the west along the perimeter of the Olympic Peninsula. Though V. edule is widely distributed throughout the Pacific Northwest, it is often difficult to locate due to its preference for growing in swamps, the edges of wet meadows, flood plain forests, and other very wet forests. I commonly find it with Sitka Spruce, Devil’s Club, and Pacific Yew.

A small bowl of slightly under-ripe Viburnum edule berries
When the fruit are just starting to redden, they have a very nice fresh cranberry-like crunch and mildly sour flavor. Fully red berries have a more complex flavor that is both sweeter and sourer. Nibbling raw, you must use your incisors to scrape the flesh from the large flat seeds, which is easier than eating whole sunflower seeds. Their flavor is amazingly refreshing, rejuvenating tired eyes and a cloudy mind instantaneously. They are a perfect snack for the late summer when you’re sunburned and dehydrated from too much ultimate Frisbee or beach volleyball. Cook and strain the seeds to make a wonderful, mildly sweet sauce that goes well on fish or game, or juice and sweeten them to make an excellent jelly. For more cooking ideas and detailed recipes, check out the University of Alaska's Cooperative Extension Service flyer on Highbush Cranberries.

Abe’s Key to Pacific Northwest Highbush Cranberries

1a Leaf petioles lacking glands; leaves with dentate margins and shallow lobes; flowers all fertile and opening at the same time, cymes (flower clusters) usually less than 1 inch across with less than 50 flowers, on lateral branches with only 1 pair of leaves; fruit borne in small clusters (usually less than 10), sour but very palatable; reclining to upright shrub rarely exceeding 7 feet tall, inhabiting wet forests, swamps, and lakeshores:
Viburnum edule Highbush Cranberry, Squashberry, Mooseberry.
1b Leaf petioles with glands near the base of the leaf blade; leaves deeply lobed with +/- dentate margins; cymes 2-3 inches across with a marginal ring of larger sterile flowers (3/4 inch across) that open before the central fertile flowers (1/4 inch across), on terminal branches with 2 pairs of leaves; fruit borne in large clusters (usually more than 10); shrubs 8-15 feet tall – Go to 2.
2a Petiole glands convex, slightly stalked (may become deformed or shrink as the season progresses); petiole groove broad and shallow; stipules small and deciduous; leaves larger at 2-4 inches across with sharply pointed lobes with scattered to no dentations on the margins; underside of the leaves pubescent.; fruit sour but edible; limited in our area to eastern British Columbia (and possible the lower Fraser River valley):
Viburnum trilobum, Viburnum opulus var. americanum, American Highbush Cranberry, American Cranberrybush.
2b Petiole glands concave, sessile; petiole groove deep and narrow; stipules long, conspicuous and persistent; leaves smaller at 1-3 inches across with more rounded lobes and more dentate margins; pubescence usually limited to the veins on the underside of the leaf; fruit bitter, sour, and mildly toxic; growing throughout our area in or near urban areas and old fields:
Viburnum opulus var. opulus, European Highbush Cranberry, European Cranberrybush, Guelder Rose, Cramp Bark, Snowball Tree.

Leaves, fruit, and seeds of Viburnum edule (left) and V. opulus (right)

Petiole grooves, glands, and stipules of Viburnum edule (left) and V. opulus (right)

Viburnum edule berries don't appear in the ethnographic record very far south of the Puget Sound. They were not commonly eaten by the Coast Salish and Erna Gunther did not include them in the Ethnobotany of Western Washington, although George Gibbs did record a Nisqually name for the berries (1877). Along the Fraser River, the Squamish and Sto:lo have names for the plant and likely picked the fruit, but the ethnographic record is sparse (Turner and Bouchard 1976; Galloway 1982). Further upriver, the Nlaka'pamux (Thompson) traditionally ate the fruit fresh, dried, or cooked into a soup or made into jelly (Turner et al. 1990). Just over the Cascades the Okanagan and Colville traditionally harvested the berries after a frost and ate them fresh (Turner et al. 1980). The more northern Salish on eastern central Vancouver Island collected Highbush Cranberries, and often cooked and served them with oil at large feasts, or ate them raw after a frost had softened the fruit (Turner and Bell 1971). On the other side of Vancouver Island, the Nuu-chah-nulth ate the berries fresh with grease (Turner and Efrat 1982). Northward, the Kwakwaka’wakw steamed partially unripe berries until they became soft and red and stored them in bentwood boxes filled with water and sealed with grease for family use throughout the winter. Only ripe, fresh cranberries served with eulachon grease were eaten at feasts (Turner and Bell 1973). All the Indigenous groups on the North Coast of British Columbia traditionally use the berries. Hanaksiala and Haisla families owned productive bushes and stored the berries in water filled barrels sealed with grease for winter use. They were sometimes prepared with Crabapples (Malus fusca), Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursa) berries and the False Solonomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum) juice (Compton 1993). The Gitga’at use the berries extensively. They were traditionally stored in barrels or boxes filled with water or whipped grease and served at feasts throughout the winter, often with Crabapples (Malus fusca) and today people make jam or jelly from the fruit. According to Ernie Hill Jr., if the berries are carefully simmered for many hours, the seeds will separate from the pulp and float to the surface where they can easily be skimmed off the top (Turner and Thompson 2006). Further north along the coast, the Haida hold these berries in high esteem. Berry patches were traditionally owned and managed by families and permission was needed to pick from these productive areas. Slightly under-ripe berries are often picked and canned, or in historic times, placed in bentwood boxes filled with water and sealed with grease for use in the winter. The berries are frequently mentioned in Haida mythology are believed to be the food of supernatural beings (Turner 2004). Viburnum edule are similarly used by the Iñupiat in Northwest Alaska, who occasionally eat them seeds and all (Jones 1983)

V. edule berries at various stages of ripeness

Many Indigenous People believe that the plants are becoming scarcer, possibly on account of higher deer populations (deer over-browse the vegetation (see Turner 2004)), lower bear populations (bears break limbs off the bushes, stimulating new growth (see Compton 1993)), and the disruption of traditional management practices.

The seeds of V. edule are flat like those of squash
Other common names for Viburnum edule include Mooseberry (because the shrubs are universally loved by North American ungulates) and Squashberry (because the flat seeds resemble those of squash). Whether by beast or human, the plants are definitely deserving the specific epithet edule, which means “edible” in Latin.

Compton, Brian Douglas 1993 Upper North Wakashan and Southern Tsimshian Ethnobotany: The Knowledge and Usage of Plants.... Ph.D. Dissertation, University of British Columbia (p. 232)

Galloway, Brent 1982. Upper Stó:lō Ethnobotany. Coqualeetza Education Training Centre, Sardis BC.
Jones, Anore 1983. Nauriat Nigiñaqtuat, The Plants That We Eat. Anore Jones and Manilaq Association, Kotzebue AK.

Gibbs, George 1877. Dictionary of the Niskwalli. U.S. Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region. Contributions to North American Ethnology, Vol. 1 Washington DC.

Hitchcock, Leo C. and Arthur Cronquist 1973. Flora of the Pacific Northwest, and Illustrated Manual. University of Washington Press, Seattle WA.

Thayer, Samuel. The Forager’s Harvest. Forager’s Harvest Press, Ogema WI.

Turner, Nancy J. 2004. Plants of Haida Gwaii. Sono Nis Press, Winlaw BC.

Turner, Nancy J. and Barbara S. Efrat 1982. Ethnobotany of the Hesquiat Indians of Vancouver Island. Cultural Recovery Papers No. 2, British Columbia Provincial Museum, Victoria BC.

Turner, Nancy J. and Dawn C. Loewen 1998. The Original “Free Trade”: Exchange of Botanical Products and Associated Plant Knowledge in Northwestern North America. Anthropoligica Vol. 40, No. 1.

Turner, Nancy J. and Marcus Bell 1971. The Ethnobotany of the Coast Salish. Economic Botany Vol. 25, No. 1.

Turner, Nancy J. and Marcus Bell 1973. The Ethnobotany of the Southern Kwakiutl Indians of British Columbia. Economic Botany Vol. 27, No. 3.

Turner, Nancy J. and Judy Thompson 2006. ’Nwana’a lax Yuup, Plants of the Gitga’at People. Cortex Consulting, University of Victoria School of Environmental Studies, and Coast Under Stress MCRI, Victoria BC.

Turner, Nancy J. and Randy Bouchard 1976. Squamish Ethnobotany. Unpublished manuscript.

Turner, Nancy J. Randy Bouchard, and Dorothy I. D. Kennedy 1980. Ethnobotany of the Okanagan-Colville Indians of British Columbia and Washington. Occasional Paper Series No. 21, British Columbia Provincial Museum.

Turner, Nancy J. Laurence C. Thompson, M. Terry Thompson, and Annie Z. York 1990. Thompson Ethnobotany, Knowledge and Usage of Plants by the Thompson Indians of British Columbia. Memoir No. 3, Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria BC.

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