Lowbush cranberry is a dwarf shrub in the heath family (Ericaceae) with ovate leaves and tart red berries, one of the most common and widespread species in the park, very common in lowland bogs and forests across the gradient of elevation into high alpine tundra. Vaccinium vitis-idaea stems grow to 5-20 cm tall, but its most vigorous expansion is horizontal, from creeping stems and underground rhizomes. The leathery leaves are oblong to elliptic, with a rounded tip and impressed midvein. Leaf margins are often inrolled. The leaves are glossy green above and paler below, dotted with glandular brown hairs. Flowers are produced at the end of twigs, one to several in a cluster. The corolla is bell-shaped with four (or five) lobes, the broadly triangular teeth sometimes turning upwards. The flowers are dark pink in bud, becoming whiter. Above the corolla is a red 4-lobedcalyx, which persists at the end of the fruits. Fruits are a red berry, 8-10 mm wide. Each fruit has 3-15 seeds, which are short-beaked and yellow, ca. 1 mm in length. This species can be identified by its glossy, revolute leaves with a deeply impressed central vein.
Vaccinium vitis-idaea flowers in mid to late June and July. Fruits form in August, and often persist on the plant over winter. The leaves are evergreen, but change from dark green to red-purple in the fall. New roots grow in two phases, in the spring and fall.
Lowbush cranberry is monoecious with bisexual flowers. Plants are pollinated by bumblebees and syrphid flies. Flowers can also self-fertilize, but this dramatically lowers fruit set (Fröborg 1996). Berries are widely eaten by birds and mammals, and the seeds are dispersed via their scat. Seeds do not require a period of cold dormancy, and have the highest rates of germination when planted immediately in the fall (Tirmenstein 1991). Plants also spread via rhizomes, forming dense mats, and this is probably the main mode of establishment in undisturbed populations. V. vitis-idaea can survive light to moderate fires, regrowing from its rhizomes.
The Database of Insects and their Food Plants documents some of the numerous insects that feed on V. vitis-idaea including 2 flies, 4 Hemiptera (true bugs), 1 sawfly, 1 butterfly, 12 macro-moths, and 11 micro-moths (Biological Records Centre 2008). Like other members of the ericaceae, lowbush cranberry can host infections of Exobasidium species. This fungal parasite causes stems to grow with thick red leaves, but is usually not fatal to the plant. The Pacific Northwest Fungi Database also documented 3 species of rusts on V. vitis-idaea, Gibbera vaccinii, Pucciniastrum goeppertianum, and P. vaccinii (Glawe 2016).
Low-bush Cranberry forms an upright and ubiquitous evergreen groundcover in Alaskan forests, producing an abundance of cranberries also referred to as lingonberries. The berries are widely picked by people, eaten plain or turned into jams, jellies, syrups and juice. Traditional Alaska Native uses include the consumption of raw berries and juice were for congestion, coughing, colds, flus, and in tonics (Garibaldi 1999). Consuming the berry material was also used to avoid or resolve kidney trouble including associate backaches. Chewing berries has also been used to relieve stomach problems such as morning sickness. The species is browed by hares, moose, caribou and black bears. Bears, spruce grouse, ravens and numerous other birds eat the fruit.
Vaccinium vitis-idaea is a widespread circumpolar species that occurs across all of Canada to Greenland, the New England states (excluding New York), and northern Minnesota barely reaching Wisconsin and Michigan. This species occurs throughout Alaska, including the far Aleutians, Southeast and the North Slope. V. vitis-idaea is also nearly ubiquitous in Denali, particularly the northern half of the park, but occurring in boreal to alpine situations across the region.
In general, lowbush cranberry is one of the most frequently found species, and it reaches a high level of cover (amount of area occupied by a plant) in many areas. In regards to elevation, cover for this species peaks at ~13% at altitudes under 300 m declining fairly linearly to 1% at above 1100 m. Its frequency of occurrence peaks at 300-500 meters, with 87% of plots at that elevation containing lowbush cranberry. The amount of area covered and frequency of this species vary little by aspect. Cover is highest on flat areas (incline less than 4 degrees) whereas frequency is highest at 4-12 degrees, and shows fewer declines with increasing slope.
Lowbush cranberry is found on a wide variety of soil types, including wet mineral soils, deep organic layers and peat, also found less dominantly in the alpine on rocky slopes and in tundra. It is typically found in acidic conditions.
Wide ranging; wet to dry sites across the landscape.