Vaccinium vitis-idaea

Mountain Cranberry

Vaccinium vitis-idaea

Flora, fauna, earth, and sky...
The natural history of the northwoods



  • Vaccinium, an ancient name with ambiguous origins
  • vitis-idaea, from the Latin, "vine of Mount Ida"
  • Mountain Cranberry, from
  • Other common names include: lowbush cranberry, dry ground cranberry, moss cranberry, alpine cranberry, shore cranberry, rock cranberry, lingenberry, lingen, lingon, lingonberry, partridgeberry, cowberry, foxberry, redberries, red whortleberry, vine of Mount Ida, tyttebær (Nor), Lus nam Braoileag (Gaelic)


  • Kingdom Plantae, the Plants
    • Division Magnoliophyta, the Angiosperms (flowering plants)
      • Class Magnoliopsida, the Dicotyledons
      • Subclass Dilleniidae
  • Taxonomic Serial Number: 524790
  • Also known as Vaccinium jesoense, Vaccinium vitis-idaea var. minus, Vaccinium vitis-idaea var. punctata
  • Mountain cranberry is a member of the section Vitis-idaea within the whortleberry subfamily (Vaccinoideae) of the heath family (Ericaceae). It is considered intermediate between the true blueberries (subgenus Cyanococcus) and the cranberries (subgenus Oxycoccus). Two subspecies, spp. minus and ssp. vitis-idaea, have been delineated on the basis of plant height and form.



  • A low, creeping, evergreen subshrub that commonly reaches 2"-6" in height. It typically grows in dense rhizomatous colonies and frequently forms mats.
  • Stems semi-woody, slender and trailing, bearing numerous shoots 1-2 mm in diameter.
  • Roots consist of tap roots with finely divided rootlets at the extremities and adventitious roots occurring at nodes along creeping stems and rhizomes. The branched rhizomes have numerous hairlike roots. Maximum rooting depths 2"-11". 80% of the total biomass of mature plants is underground.
  • Leaves simple, thick, leathery, and evergreen; are obovate, oblong, or elliptic, alternating in a spiral. Upper surface dark green; the lower surface pale green, waxy with black glandular dots, turning purplish in fall. Leaves may persist for up to 3 years.
  • Plants become dormant by fall.
  • Flowers develop from buds initiated the previous year, occurring on terminal racemes singly or in groups of up to 15.
  • Fruit a bright to dark red, globular berry approximately 1/4" to 1/2" in diameter. The four-celled berries are acidic to sour or bitter. Yellow, short-beaked seeds average 0.04" in length.

  • Subspecies vitis-idaea typically taller (12" or more) than the subspecies minus (under 8") with larger leaves. Details of flower form also differ.


  • Circumpolar, circumboreal species throughout parts of North America, Eurasia, and Japan.
  • The New World subspecies (ssp. minus) extends from NW Greenland across the Canadian Arctic south to New England, west to the Great Lakes and British Columbia to islands in the Bering Sea. In North America, mountain cranberry is restricted to areas north of the glacial boundary.
  • The subspecies vitis-idaea occurs throughout northern Europe from Scandinavia to northern Italy and the Caucasus, across northern Siberia and Japan south into northern China and Korea.


  • Northern temperate forests, arctic and alpine communities. At the southern edge of its range, occurs primarily in bogs, but in the north grows on both wet and dry sites. Also on high moors, heath barrens, sand dunes, and in peatlands, forest swamps, and bogs. In mature forests, plants often grow on top of decaying tree stumps.
  • Occurs in a diverse array of communities, particularly as understory dominant in Black Spruce/Feathermoss, White Spruce, and Jack Pine communities. Other common overstory dominants or codominants include tamarack (Larix laricina), aspen, and birches (Betula spp.). Mountain cranberry also grows in a variety of dwarf shrub, dwarf birch-willow, and tundra shrub tussock communities.
  • Soils: Grows on shallow, poorly developed mineral soil as well as on drained peat. Soils often of low fertility with little calcium but may be high in decaying organics. Commonly grows on acidic sandy loams or loamy clays; poorest vegetative growth on sandy soils. Soil pH ranges from 2.7 to 8.2, but best growth at 4.0 to 4.9. Soils derived from a variety of parent materials, including sandstone, gneiss, granite, and glacial outwash sands and gravel.
  • Not generally considered a pioneer species but does occur in early stages in some communities. Persists indefinitely unless shaded out by conifers.


  • Occurs in a variety of communities across a wide climatic range. It persists under a regime of relatively frequent fires but also grows in areas that rarely burn.
  • In many forest communities, requires fire for its maintenance. Increases in cover and vigor after fire are commonly observed. Generally reestablishes a site through sprouting from rhizomes and aerial stems. Very limited reestablishment may occur on exceptional sites in good years by seed transported from off-site.

  • Underground regenerative structures generally survive light fires. Plants often survive even when aerial portions are consumed by fire. However, plants may be killed by moderate to heavy, duff-consuming fires. Survival is related to many factors including soil moisture levels, season of burn, fire severity and intensity, and rhizome depth. The heat-sensitive seeds of mountain cranberry are usually destroyed by fire; reestablishment through seed is extremely rare.


  • Trees: Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera), White Spruce (Picea glauca), Black Spruce (Picea mariana), Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana)
  • Shrubs: Labrador Tea (Ledum groenlandicum), Prickly Rose (Rosa acicularis), Willows (Salix spp.)
  • Herbs: Bluejoint Reedgrass (Calamagrostis canadensis), Sedges (Carex spp.), Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium), Cottongrass (Eriophorum vaginatum), Twinflower (Linnaea borealis), Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense),
  • Ground Covers: Feathermosses
  • Mammals: Browse readily eaten by black bear, moose, and snowshoe hare. Many species feed on fruit left on the ground from the previous year.

  • The red-backed vole eats large quantities of mountain cranberry fruit during the fall. Berries are a primary winter food source as well; the rodents burrow under snow to reach the persistent fruit. The red fox also consumes large amounts of fruit during late fall. Mountain cranberry fruit is an important black bear food in many areas. Berries remain on the plant over winter, and black bears begin feeding on berries during the early spring as soon as the snow has melted. Fruit again assumes importance in black bear diets during the fall . Many other mammals, including the polar bear, eastern chipmunk, and white-footed mouse, also feed on the fruit of mountain cranberry. Fruits of many Vacciniums are readily eaten by species such as the red squirrel, gray fox, skunks, and chipmunks

  • Birds: Berries are an important Spruce Grouse food. In many areas, berries are an essential food source for birds migrating northward in the spring. Common raven, ruffed grouse, spruce grouse, whimbrel, herring gull, Canada goose, and many species of songbirds, such as the American robin, scarlet tanager, and thrushes, readily consume the fruit.


  • Native Americans and indigenous peoples of Eurasia used the leaves and fruit as food or medicine. Preparations made from the leaves were used to treat bladder problems, gout, and rheumatism. Medicinal fruit jellies were used to treat sore throats and colds. The Slave, Athabaska, Cree, and Inuit people ate the fruit fresh and preserved them for winter use. Berries were often boiled and mixed with oil to facilitate storage for long periods.


  • Fruit can be eaten raw or cooked to make a tart sauce. Berries are used to make preserves, jam, jelly, candy, syrup, pickles, juice beverages, and wine. Fruit can be added to rose hips to make a tasty jelly, or added to various ice cream products.
  • Fruit is widely processed and marketed in Japan and Europe and is harvested commercially in parts of Alaska, Scandinavia, Russia, and Canada. Large amounts of fruit are imported into the US annually, much of this consumed by peoples of Scandinavian descent who use the so-called "Swedish lingenberry" in traditional dishes.
  • Arbutin, which is obtained from the leaves and stems, is used by the pharmaceutical industry in preparations used to treat intestinal disorders.


  • Reproduces by seed and vegetatively by rhizomes
  • Seed: Few flowers are produced until plants reach 5-10 years of age. Pollinated by bumblebees (Bombus spp.) and bee flies (syrphid flies). Plants may be self or cross pollinated, but fruit set is much greater after cross pollination. Berries are often produced in abundance, with 3-15 seeds per berry. Seeds are dispersed by birds and mammals.
  • Germination: Seed can germinate on bare ground, but only if conditions are favorable. Fresh seed generally exhibits best germination.
  • Seedlings are rarely observed in the field.
  • Vegetative regeneration of primary importance. Plants commonly expand through horizontal rhizomes. Rhizomes may sprout singly or in groups of 1 or 2 per square meter. Large, older clones may be separated into numerous daughter clones by disturbances such as frost, fire, or burrowing mammals. Rhizome depth is inversely related to the thickness of soil organic layers. Rhizomes grow well in peat but can also penetrate to mineral soil. The trailing or creeping stems also root at the nodes.


  • Readily propagated from seed, following cold stratification, and stem or rhizome cuttings.
  • Ggood germination has been reported after stratification at 32 to 41 degrees F for up to 5 months.
  • Stem cuttings root easily if planted in the spring or early fall but exhibit slow rhizome development and poor subsequent vegetative spread. Clumps can be divided and transplanted onto disturbed sites. Survival of these transplants is variable, ranging from 30%-90%.


  • Sandy, acidic soil (pH 5-6) with at least 2% organic matter is reported to be the best field medium for establishment and early growth
  • Forms a dense, attractive mat and has been planted as an ornamental ground cover. It was first cultivated in 1789. Has shown promise for use in developing hardy fruit-producing cultivars.
  • Roots and rhizomes undergo two periods of active growth annually in early spring and fall.
  • Fruit production varies widely according to geographic location, site factors such as shade and soil, annual weather conditions, and the genetic make-up of the individual clone. Plants growing in the shade rarely produce fruit or flowers, but plants growing in full sun commonly bear an abundance of fruit. Yields generally greater on peat than on mineral soil. In harsh arctic environments, only plants in protected areas, such as on south facing rock crevices, flower.
  • Cultivation: Generally responds more favorably to fertilizer and irrigation than do other members of the genus. However, the application of fertilizer does not always increase fruit yields. Comparatively little fertilizer is required for good growth and development; if too much is added, vegetative growth may be promoted at the expense of fruit production. Where weeds are a problem, fertilizer may increase competitors at the expense of mountain cranberry. Mulches such as milled peat can increase fruit production in some instances.
  • Chemical response: Susceptible to herbicides such as 2,4-D. These herbicides cause browning of stems and leaves and at high concentrations can kill the plants.
  • Damage/disease: Can be killed by exposure to cold temperatures in the absence of a protective snow cover. Unacclimated plants can be killed by exposure to temperatures of 28 degrees F or below; acclimated plants can survive exposure to temperatures as low as 8 degrees F. Susceptible to several diseases and insect infestations.


Boreal border
Last updated on 9 August 1999