NGA Articles: The Mighty Lingonberry

The Mighty Lingonberry

By: Robert E. Gough

If you live in the North and are searching for a new and unusual crop or landscape plant, consider lingonberries. These plants thrive in moist, acidic soils from Massachusetts to Alaska, producing an abundance of healthful, cranberry-like fruits.

The lingonberry is a 12- to 18-inch-high evergreen shrub native to northern temperate, boreal and arctic regions of Europe and North America. In addition to inherent cold-hardiness (to -10°), once covered with insulating snow, it survives northern winters from New England to Minnesota. In fact, it's one of the few fruits that gardeners can grow successfully in those cold climates. In warmer climates, such as USDA Hardiness Zones 9 and 10, lingonberry neither grows well nor reliably survives summer.

Lingonberry plants spread by underground runners to three feet. The glossy, dark green leaves are 1/8- to 1/2-inch long and usually tinged red when new. This shrub is handsome enough for ornamental use -- as a small-scale ground cover or informal edging around larger acid-soil plantings, for example. It is also attractive in containers.

The wild North American species of lingonberry, Vaccinium vitis-idaea var. minus (also called the mountain cranberry) is a low-growing plant that blooms only in the spring; the European and Asian native, V. v. var. majus, is a slightly taller shrub with larger leaves and flowers. It blooms twice each season. Also called cowberry or foxberry, it's the type more commonly found at nurseries. Dan Hartmann, of Hartmann's Plantation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, notes that this potential for a double crop is part of what makes these plants attractive.

Small, pinkish white, lily-of-the-valley-like blossoms open in tight clusters near the tips of one-year-old shoots and make an attractive display in border plantings. The May bloom produces fruits that ripen in midsummer (July and August here in northern Maine). The summer bloom, which occurs when fruits from the first bloom are ripening, produces fruits that ripen in late September and October.

Open flowers are only hardy to about 30&deg, meaning the first bloom is usually nipped by a late frost. The second crop is usually the largest and often the only one of the season. This is not as bad as it sounds, however. In my experience, fruits that ripen in the cooler temperatures of fall generally have the best color and flavor.

Lingonberries are self-pollinating, but cross-pollination will produce larger fruits that ripen earlier. Besides, mixing fruit of several varieties will tickle your palate with all the fine, tart nuances of lingonberry flavor.

Bumblebees are the best natural lingonberry pollinators. Plants need two to three years to begin bearing good crops, according to Diana MacKentley of St. Lawrence Nurseries in Potsdam, New York. But when the time comes -- usually just in time for Thanksgiving -- better have your recipes ready.

Lingonberries are slightly smaller than cranberries but otherwise look and are cooked the same. Flavor, however, is distinct. Pick the firm, deep red fruits and refrigerate immediately; sound fruit will keep for up to three weeks. Or wash, drain and freeze them for use later in the season.

These fruits are tart. Make them into jam for a superb roast goose and venison topping. Pancakes covered with lingonberry syrup are a Swedish tradition. Use them in any recipe that calls for cranberries. Lingonberries are very rich in vitamin C -- Scandinavians and native tribes of northern Canada use the fruit as a cold remedy. The simplest preparation is lingonberry sauce: 3 cups washed fruits, 1 1/4 cups sugar and 1 cup water. Boil 10 minutes; skim and cool.

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