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Good Viburnums

American highbush cranberry in Johnson, VT. Photo courtesy David Fried

David Fried

Walking up the dirt road in Johnson, Vermont the other day, I came across glowing red berries in clusters all over the stems of a large bush. I tasted some. Wow. Sour, but good. Would be very fine in a cranberry sauce. Yes folks, this is the American highbush cranberry, “viburnum trilobum.” The true American highbush cranberry bush is taller and woodier than the lowbush bush trailing cranberry we eat at Thanksgiving and not related except in common name and flavor.

Why do so many of the so-called highbush cranberry bushes have fruit that tastes awful, but this one has fruit that tastes delicious? The culprit is the European highbush cranberry bush, “viburnum opulus.” My friend and mentor, Bill Mackentley, tells me that it seems a lot of plants being sold as viburnum trilobum have crossed with the European highbush. The European highbush cranberry fruit is bitter and no one would want to eat it off the bush. One of his goals and mine is to find an original American highbush cranberry and propagate some good ones and get them out again to the people. Maybe today I have located an original.

Besides being tasty and useful in sauces and jams, its fruit tastes like it is packed with vitamins and antioxidants. In the winter, the multitudes of red shining berries seen against the white snow is a real artist’s masterpiece. Songbirds leave them alone for a while, but, after they have polished off all the sweeter crabapples, they zoom in for these. So do I.

Seen any pelicans in Vermont lately? I have! On the ends of a bush or small tree called the wild raisin viburnum. “Viburnum lentago” is easy to grow and not very fussy about its location. It grows perfectly well at our farm in sun or shade, in dry or very moist locations. Its buds in winter remind me of pelicans ready to take off. In spring they open to large white florets which over the summer become fruit. When blue-black, you can take one or two and suck on them for a snack. They are not juicy but have a very pleasant pumpkin pie spice flavor, with a flat watermelon seed-like pit inside. In autumn, these bushes glow reddish-purple as their leaves turn rainbow colors. Though some years a viburnum beetle skeletonizes the leaves of the highbush cranberry and other viburnums, I never see them on the wild raisin. Both of these viburnums grow about 6-10 feet tall. The more they are enjoying their spot, the fuller and taller they get.

Besides being beautiful and producing tasty fruit, these bushes have good vibes. They don’t ask for much. They are simple beings. They don’t grow too large or shade out many others. They settle in wherever they are invited. They feed us. They feed songbirds and chipmunks. When we go to sleep, you can hear them softly strumming a guitar (you have to listen very closely). I think they sing of a place far away where pelicans fly in and out of ocean waves and catch fish. Sometimes they sing of cranberry bogs that reach out for miles around so there is nothing else. Being taller and woodier, they are treated like celebrities there.

When you taste these fruits on a summer night and close your eyes, you may just hear the Beach Boys singing (from 1966): “good, good, good, good vibrations.” Or was it good viburnums?

David Fried is a writer, grower of plants, and teller of tales.

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