How Highbush Cranberry Could Help Your Grouse Hunting
Growing up in northern Minnesota, I was strictly warned as a child about which wild berries I could and could not eat in the forest. The only “edible” ones were the ones my parents told me I could eat. Without their approval, I was not to sample them. But how is a kid supposed to learn if they don’t at least attempt something stupid? After trying and quickly spitting out several different wild berries, I distinctly remember finding a cluster of bright red berries that looked beautiful but smelled horrible. I figured from the smell alone that it was rotten or poisonous, so I never did sample them. Looking back now, I recognize that was likely a highbush cranberry shrub.
Many people don’t recognize highbush cranberry and even fewer utilize it themselves or for hunting purposes. But it can be an important survival food for ruffed grouse and other wildlife. And it makes a really interesting jelly or syrup to pair with a ruffed grouse dinner. Here’s how you can identify it and maybe even use it to your advantage this fall.
Description and Identification
Highbush cranberry (Viburnum opulus var. americanum), also known as American cranberry bush, is confusingly not actually related to the cranberries we love to eat around the holidays (i.e., Vaccinium species). But the fruits can resemble them in taste and looks (University of Maine Extension 2019). The highbush cranberry is a medium height shrub, growing 8 to 15 feet tall on average and spreading roughly 10 feet (Minnesota Wildflowers 2019). It is a deciduous plant with maple-like leaves that are 3-lobed and coarsely toothed (USDA NRCS 2019). On young plants, the twigs are usually red or green-colored, which gradually turn grayish brown. Older shrubs have bark that is gray or brown and that is slightly rough. Highbush cranberry shrubs tend to have multiple stems suckering up from around the original main stem, and the main stem usually only gets about 2 inches in diameter (Minnesota Wildflowers 2019). In the fall, the leaves typically turn a beautiful purplish red color.
The flowers of the highbush cranberry shrub usually appear after the leaves emerge (i.e., from May to June), and occur as flat clusters 2 to 5 inches across. The flowers themselves are 5-petaled and come in two different forms on the same plant. Around the edge of the cluster, large white flowers surround numerous tiny white flowers (USDA NRCS 2019). The smaller flowers in the center are the fertile ones that will produce fruit, and it’s likely the larger ones attract pollinators. The fruit (which generally grows in August and ripens by late September) is a shiny sphere called a drupe that has a fleshy outside and large stone inside (much like plums or cherries). The fruit is ¼ to ½ inch wide and it turns bright red when ripe. The single stone is large, yellowish, flat, and contains the seed or seeds inside it (University of Maine Extension 2019).
Importantly, there is a non-native copycat that can confuse people when it comes to identifying this shrub. The European introduction, called Guelder-rose (Viburnum opulus var. opulus), is planted as an ornamental quite often and has escaped cultivation from suburban areas. It’s pretty tricky to tell the two apart unless you use a hand lens. At the base of the leaf, there are small glands that can identify them. The glands of Guelder-rose are usually “shorter than wide, oval-elliptic, and bowl or cup shaped (concave) with a distinct rim; those of the native are typically taller than wide, round to oval, flat or rounded (convex) at the tip, and lack a distinct rim” (Minnesota Wildflowers 2019). To make general assumptions, you will likely find a true native highbush cranberry if you are in a remote or rural area.
Where Does It Grow
American highbush cranberry, the native kind, occurs mostly along the northern edge of the U.S. (from Maine to Washington) and across southern Canada where forest cover is available. Across this range, it grows in a variety of conditions and habitats. Although it is shade-tolerant, it prefers full sun and will grow and bear fruit the best in sunny conditions. Likewise, it can occur in many different soils (e.g., sand, loam, clay) but it typically grows best in consistently wet but well-drained soils (i.e., more on the loamy side). For example, riparian areas (e.g., streams, river banks, etc.), lake shores, forest-swamp transitions, forest edges, and clearings can all be prime habitat for this plant.
Importance for Ruffed Grouse
Highbush cranberry fruits are quite tart early in the season, nearly inedible, which is why people often process them into jellies or syrups with lots of additional sugar. After the berries are exposed to a few freeze-thaw cycles, however, they tend to sweeten a bit and get mushier. Ruffed grouse, pheasants, deer, raccoons, chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, robins, cedar waxwings, and other songbirds all have been known to eat these fruits (USDA NRCS 2019). But because they often persist on the shrub until mid-winter, it’s likely they are not especially palatable to wildlife. More likely, ruffed grouse and numerous other wildlife species utilize highbush cranberry as a survival food. So if they’re not high on the grouse menu, why should you care about this shrub?
While overall habitat quality, including dense cover types adjacent to food sources, is more important for winter survival of ruffed grouse, it definitely helps to have a variety of options for grouse to feed on. If you own private land within the grouse range, survey your property in the spring/early summer to look for the bright white flower clusters or in September to look for the bright red berries and maple-like leaves. See what other winter food sources you have, including the usual aspen, birch, hazel, and alder buds, as well as winterberry, hawthorn, or small crabapples. If there are limited mid-winter food sources available, planting highbush cranberry could be beneficial on your property. Even if you don’t get a direct benefit from hunting grouse near them, they could help grouse on your land survive the winter better, which could increase your chances of success the following fall.
If you hunt public land only, you can still benefit from highbush cranberry. While you’re hunting a property throughout the fall, keep an eye out for highbush cranberry plants in the habitats mentioned above. If you find one with lots of berries on it, take a GPS point or mark it somehow. On a late season hunt after some snow and frost cycles, revisit these areas by slowly sneaking up on them. With any luck, you may surprise a grouse feeding there to bring home for dinner. Imagine how special that dinner would be if you could pair it with some homemade highbush cranberry syrup.
Minnesota Wildflowers. 2019. American Highbush Cranberry. Accessed at: https://www.minnesotawildflowers.info/shrub/american-highbush-cranberry
University of Maine. Cooperative Extension. 2019. Highbush Cranberry. Accessed at: https://extension.umaine.edu/cranberries/highbush-cranberry/
USDA NRCS. 2019. The PLANTS Database. American Cranberrybush. Accessed at: https://plants.usda.gov/factsheet/pdf/fs_viopa2.pdf