Viburnum trilobum, the highbush cranberry, or American cranberry bush, may look like an actual cranberry, also known as lowbush cranberry, but it is a different shrub. Both bear fruits aka ‘drupes’ that are very similar in appearance and taste. They also mature in the fall at the same time. But, on the other hand, both shrubs are remarkably different.
The actual cranberries come from members of an unrelated genus, Vaccinum. These cranberries are often served at Thanksgiving dinners and the source plant resembles blueberries more than, it resembles Highbush Cranberry.
The main difference between the two plants is that the highbush cranberry or “Viburnum trilobum” comes from the genus Viburnum of the Caprifoliaceae, or Honeysuckle family, in contrast to the actual cranberry, which belongs to the genus Vaccinum of the Ericaceae, or “Heather” family. The Honeysuckle family contains almost 400 species, of which more than 11 are trees, and the remaining ones are shrubs. These shrubs are native to America, Europe, and Asia.
The name American cranberry bush refers to its bright red fruit that is strikingly similar to cranberries. They are used in side dishes on holidays or to garnish salad for meals. The common name highbush cranberry says something about the height of the plant, which is remarkably high for a shrub.
The plant is a shrub that has an arching stem and grows at a rate of 3 feet per year. It is between 8 and 15 ft. tall by 8 to 10 ft. wide, and is very dense, rounded, and branched. The stem is very branched, making this shrub an ideal choice as a screening hedge.
It is a haven for wildlife, especially birds, that relish its delicate, fleshy, and delicious fruits. The plant is quite spectacular when it bears fruit. It can grow on almost every soil but shows abundant growth in well-drained, loamy soils. Viburnum trilobum can tolerate drought but grows profusely if the water is abundant.
Viburnum trilobum leaves have three lobes and contain glands where the petiole meets the leaf blade. These glands are meant for storing extrafloral nectar. These nectaries lure predatory insects like ants, wasps, and some flies that hunt caterpillars.
So there are two advantages for these insects, one being able to relish the nectar, the other being able to prey upon the caterpillars. The plant, in turn, can get rid of leaf-foraging caterpillars.
The leaves are somewhat wrinkled and glossy dark green in appearance. They resemble maple leaves.
The flowers come in two whorls, an outer whorl or sterile, showy flowers that surround a much dense cluster of fertile flowers. The outer boundary of vibrant white, sterile flowers helps attract pollinators for the fertile flowers.
The plant is a hermaphrodite, so Highbush Cranberry does not need any neighboring plants to reproduce. So the flower is self-fertile and does not require cross-pollination.
It is worth noting that the sterile perimeter is the first to bloom.
Fruit Properties and Edibility
Viburnum trilobum fruit is known as ‘drupe’ and contains vitamin C, which gives it an acidic, tarty taste. Viburnum trilobum fruit is eaten raw or used to make jams, jellies, condiments, and sauces that are used in various dishes. It is much like cranberries.
The fruit is a drupe, with a fleshy circumference and a single seed with a stony pit outside. Apricots, cherries, and peaches are some famous examples of drupe fruit.
Fruits replace pollinated flowers by June and continue to ripen through the summer.
American cranberry bush fruits contain very little fat content, so they are not preferred by migratory birds that need high fat, high-energy food with little weight to aid their journey. But, its fruits have a great charm for native birds. Robbins, bluebirds, and many more relish American cranberry bush fruit. Likewise, nearly all kinds of animals, from mice to squirrels and foxes, are fond of highbush cranberry fruit.
What to Know Before Buying?
You should be familiar with a look-alike variety of Viburnum trilobum which is known as European cranberrybush. Please note that this variety has a nearly inedible, rather toxic fruit. If you want to buy or grow highbush cranberries, please make sure that you get the American cranberry bush, not the European one, which is known as Viburnum opulus.
You can differentiate between the two by looking at their extra-floral nectaries. The American cranberrybush contains rather rounded, convex nectaries, while the European variant has concave ones.
Where to Find?
Viburnum trilobum is a landscape plant, so you can look it up in nurseries in the landscape plants section. Or you can find it among hedge plants, flowering shrubs, and edible landscape plants. Since it is a Viburnum, try to find it in the viburnum collection.
Pruning the Plant
Viburnum trilobum can be pruned once a year. Since it is a very bushy, invasive, and mounded shrub, you need to prune it/ if you want to maintain its present size. Or else, it would grow massively, which may not be an ideal situation if it is growing indoors or is a part of a landscape hedge. The best time to prune it is after flowering.
How to Move the Plants?
If you feel a need to move your Viburnum trilobum plants, the simple answer is you can do that. However, there can be some challenges, such as:
- It is difficult to move large plants, especially shrubs, as compared to smaller ones.
- The roots are 2-3 times more invasive and cover a larger area than shoots.
- The roots may be intermingled with the roots of other plants that are growing nearby.
But, on the other hand, if you feel compelled to move the plants, you must follow these steps:
- First, estimate the root ball that needs to be moved. The thing is, the wider the better. Since the soil is heavy, you can choose an area two ft. across, and more than 6 ft. deep.
- In the spring, before bud break, encircle the area that needs to be moved.
- Take a spade or shovel, and use it to draw a dotted line of insertions along the circle.
- Place the shovel on dots, and insert it into the soil, and this will sever the roots.
- Do it around the circumference of the circle, leaving spaces between the dotted line.
- Now, water the plants well during the summer, as it will help them grow young roots at the tips of the cut roots.
- In the fall, insert the shovel all the way down along the circumference of the circle, and move the plants coupled with soil.
- Move this root ball to a new location and behold the Viburnum trilobum resume its growth there.
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