Highbush cranberry is a mid-sized shrub in the honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae), common in productive spruce and mixed forests and also occurring in boreal and subalpine meadows across Denali. Although it is not related to true cranberries (which are in the heath family), this species produces tart, juicy red berries in the fall. Plants grow 0.5-3.5 m tall. Stems are reddish with smooth bark. The leaves are opposite, three-lobed and toothed. Leaf color is green to dark green, and the underside of the leaf is hairy. The flowers grow in flat-topped cymes from lateral branches, between leaves, each with 20-40 small blossoms. Each flower has a fused corolla, lobed into five petals nearly to the base, a flower about 6-8 mm wide. There are also five stamens, with tan anthers, and 3 stigma lobes on a single short style. The berries are actually juicy drupes, about 1 cm or less in diameter. They are typically bright red, occasionally dark orange, with several in a cluster. Each berry contains a single large, flat stone. People are sometimes warned not to confuse highbush cranberry with baneberry, a red-fruited, poisonous shrub. However, they are easy to tell apart in many ways. Baneberry has pinnate leaves, its fruits are hard (not juicy), and the flowers or berries are held upright in a single, pyramidal cluster above the leaves. Additionally, highbush cranberry has a distinctive, slightly skunky scent, and is a much more common species in frequently-visited areas of Denali.
Viburnum edule is a deciduous perennial that flowers in early to mid summer. Fruits are mature in autumn. The leaves turn red when the plants are in fruit.
V. edule is monoecious with bisexual flowers. Flowers produce nectar, and are insect pollinated. Fruits are eaten by birds and mammals, dispersing the seeds. Seeds typically need two period of cold stratification to germinate, and can remain viable in the soil for years (Matthews 1992). Plants can be propagated by seed and cuttings. Bushes also spread vegetatively by their rhizomes naturally. Plants begin fruiting after 5 years (Matthews 1992).
The fruits are tart, but have a pleasant flavor and are good with enough sugar. They are collected and turned into preserves and beverages, particularly jelly, cranberry sauce and tea. Because of the large seed, the berries are usually juiced first, not cooked or eaten plain. The berries are often picked after the first frost. Stem bark is used by the Alutiiq and Athabascan as a tea for stomach troubles, colds and flus, constipation, congestion, wash for skin infections, or gargling for throat irritation resulting from laryngitis (Garibaldi 1999). Bark tea and berry material have also been consumed to fight colds/flus.
Highbush cranberry is native to northern North America. It occurs from Alaska across the boreal belt to Labrador and Newfoundland, southward to northern Minnesota. In the West, this species ranges to northern Oregon and into Colorado in the Rockies. In Alaska, highbush cranberry is widespread, from the southern edge of the Brooks Range to the Alaska Peninsula and southeastern panhandle, and abundant in suitable habitat throughout central Alaska. In Denali, highbush cranberry occurs on both sides of the Alaska Range, and is particularly common in boreal areas.
Though it occurs up to 1055 m in Denali, this species is by far most abundant at 300-500 m, where it reaches 0.6% cover. Highbush cranberry typically occurs on lower slopes (average incline 6 degrees). Of those specimens on steeper inclines, most are on southern aspects.