|Lingonberry drawing by Toki Oshima
By Roberta Bailey
Until recently, the only place that I had heard about lingonberries was on the back page ad of the newspaper’s comic section. The ad promised bushels of berries and great fortune in no time at all, and with little labor. I did have to act quickly though, because supplies were limited. Having not acted quickly enough, my life was void of lingonberries – until some northern friends of Scandinavian descent gave me a jar of their lingonberry sauce. Sweet yet tangy, the flavors haunted me. The next time I visited I saw their plants, and the following spring, they gave me a dozen of the trailing plants.
A close relative of the cranberry and the blueberry, lingonberries (Vaccinum vitis-idaea var. minimus), usually known as the lowbush or mountain cranberry, do grow wild in the cooler regions of the United States. This native species bears an annual crop of small red berries that are similar to cranberries in tartness and texture. The cultivated lingonberries of European origin (Vaccinum vitis-idaea var. majus) have slightly larger berries and often bear two crops in one growing season.
The lingonberry grows as a shiny leaved, short spreading, evergreen shrub, quite similar to the lowbush blueberry, although the branches of the plant are more tender and less woody. Branches sprout from both underground runners and the plant base. Mature plants reach 12 to 18 inches in height and spread up to 18 inches. The acid-loving plant grows best in a cool climate and is hardy to at least 30 below zero with snow cover. It does need protection from drying winds in open winters.
Lingonberries grow well in full sun or partial shade, making them an ideal understory plant for such other acid loving plants as highbush blueberries. As with any fruit bearing crop, sunnier sites encourage larger crops. Lingonberries do not do well in excessively hot, droughty conditions. The pH need to be below 5.8, with the ideal being 5.0.
Lingonberries are slow to establish, taking four to seven years to mature, and they compete poorly with other plants. They need well drained soils that are rich in organic matter. To accomplish this, I turned 7 pounds of pre-moistened peat moss into 100 square feet of soil. Although the plant does not need the boggy conditions of the cranberry, the roots are shallow and need a consistent moisture supply. Shallow roots also mean that lingonberries do not compete well with weeds. Plants must be set out in a weed-free environment. Plan on a full year of advance preparation of your plot with weed-smothering, soil building cover crops.
Lingonberry requires minimal fertilizer. Too much nitrogen results in excessive growth into late fall, then plant dieback, and reduced cropping. If your plants produce several inches of new growth each year, they do not need to be fed. If not, add a low nitrogen organic fertilizer (5-10-10) or compost. Plants benefit from magnesium if soil tests indicate low levels.
Spring is the best time to plant. Wait until all danger of frost has passed before setting out your new plants. To ensure easy adjustment to transplanting, choose plants that are at least 2 inches high, preferably in 1-gallon pots. Holes need to be a few inches deeper than the rootball or the height of the pot, and wide enough to accommodate the spreading roots. Set plants at the same height that they were growing. Water them thoroughly.
Space plants 14 to 18 inches apart in rows 3 to 4 feet apart. In a few years the plants will fill in the space, creating a low, evergreen hedge. Lingonberries make an attractive ground cover under azaleas and rhododendrons. They can also be grown in containers, such as half whiskey barrels, although they must be overwintered in a mulched trench or banked with hay bales to avoid severe heaving and winter damage.
Mulch plants right after planting with 2 to 3 inches of peat moss or sawdust. As plants grow in height, add more mulch. Pull weeds by hand. Yields from mulched plants can be as much as four times those of unmulched ones.
Other than spot weeding and watering in dry spells (plants need 1 inch of water per week) and clipping broken or dead branches, lingonberries need little maintenance. After five or six years, pruning every two or three years will encourage dense shoot growth and increased fruit production. Mow alternate rows of plants while they are dormant. Mowed plants will bear the following year, but fruit harvest continues in the unmowed rows. Lingonberries are disease free with the exception of Phytophthora root rot, which can occur when they are grown in poorly drained soils.
Cultivated lingonberries bloom in spring and in midsummer. The first crop ripens in July and the second, where seasons permit, ripens in October. Some northern areas may get only one crop. Plants begin to produce within two to three years, yielding about a pound and a half per bush or 9 to 10 pounds per square yard.
The small, red, vitamin C-rich berry is about the size of a blueberry. Pick lingonberries when they’re fully colored as unripe fruit tastes bitter. Ripe fruit is tart and acidic – like a cranberry but sweeter. Some varieties are milder in flavor than others. Fruit can be gently raked with a blueberry rake, then winnowed or hand-picked. Kept refrigerated, the fruit will last about three weeks. It can be canned, frozen or dried.
'Entsegan' – W. German origin, vigorous, mild flavored, 1-1/2 pounds yield per plant
'Susi' – Swedish, very large berries, slow to establish
'Koralle' – Dutch, small to medium berries, up to 11/2 pounds per plant, needs good drainage.
'Moscovia' – Wisconsin, quicker to establish, spreads to 3 feet, holds berries into November
'Red Pearl' – German, mild flavored, early ripening, Phytophthora resistant
'Sanna' – low growing, 6 to 8 inches tall, slow to establish but productive
'Regal' – (WI 108) Wisconsin, large fruited and early ripening
'Scarlet' – good pollinator, scanty fruit production
'Splendor' – height to 15 inches, medium berries, firm, resistant to Phytophthora root rot.
The Backyard Berry Book, Stella Otto, 1995. Ottographics, Maple City, Michigan.