Lingonberries outshine Thanksgiving cranberries in backyard gardens

Thanksgiving is known for cranberries, but lingonberries make an excellent backyard substitute for gardeners in cooler climates.

Lee Reich/AP
Lingonberries are a backyard fruit that really shines. First, for its looks. Picture a bushy plant, no more than a half-foot high, covered with leaves that are as dainty as mouse ears and as lustrous green as holly leaves.

Not to be unpatriotic, but another "cranberry" outshines America's traditional Thanksgiving cranberry.

This fruit – sometimes called mountain cranberry, partridgeberry, or foxberry – is esteemed in other parts of the world. You may know it by its Scandinavian name, lingonberry, because that's where it is most popular, with many thousands of tons harvested each year from the wild.

Lingonberries are not a great commercial fruit when compared to the Thanksgiving cranberry, yielding only about half as much under cultivated conditions and a tenth as much when harvested wild.

Then again, compared to the Thanksgiving cranberry, lingonberry cultivation is still in its infancy.

A backyard star

It is as a backyard fruit that lingonberry shines. First, for its looks. Picture a bushy plant, no more than a half-foot high, covered with leaves as dainty as mouse ears and as lustrous green as holly leaves. Evergreen, too.

Like cranberry, lingonberry is a spreading plant that eventually blankets the ground in a solid green mat. Here's an edible groundcover that might stand in for the more usual vinca or pachysandra.

Come spring, the flowers that dangle from lingonberry stems look like rosy white urns. Little urns, so move up close to best appreciate them. And get up close to the plants again in midsummer, when lingonberries put on a second show.

Two waves of flowers give way to two waves of fruit, the first ripening in summer and the second in fall. No need to rush the fall harvest because the berries keep well on the plants, in terms of eating and looks, almost all winter.

Like our Thanksgiving cranberry, lingonberry fruits are red and tart — but lingonberries are not too tart to pop right into your mouth. They are delicious as a fresh nibble, as well as when they are cooked into a jam or sauce. They make an especially tasty sauce or jam when combined with lowbush blueberries, another spreading plant and one with which lingonberry combines particularly well in the garden, too.

Get the soil right

Lingonberry and blueberry are such congenial companions in the ground because both require the same specialized soil conditions – that is, soils that are very acidic, well drained, and rich in humus.

Easily create these soil conditions by digging plenty of acidic peat moss into the soil before planting and, after planting and from then on, maintaining a mulch of some organic material such as shredded leaves, fine bark, or well-rotted sawdust on top of the ground.

The mulch will keep the soil cool and moist and, as it decomposes, enrich the soil with humus.

If the soil acidity remains above 5.5 even after mixing in the peat moss, spread pelletized sulfur over the ground (1 to 2 pounds per hundred square feet, depending on the change needed).

Lingonberries are not hungry plants, so fertilize lightly, if at all. Use a fertilizer such as soybean or cottonseed meal at a rate of no more than 1 pound per hundred square feet.

Keep 'em cool

Lingonberries are plants of northern climates so, except in coldest regions, plant them where they get a little shade from hot afternoon sun. Supplemental watering is helpful, at least for the first couple of seasons while plants are establishing themselves in their new quarters.

Keep the whole family together

Enthusiasm for lingonberry need not shut out our Thanksgiving cranberry. Cranberry plants can rub elbows with lingonberries (and blueberries) because, as close relatives, they enjoy those same specialized soil conditions. Thanksgiving cranberry is a somewhat pretty plant, also, and of course bears edible berries — just less pretty and less edible than lingonberry.

And as for patriotism, lingonberries' native range does include North America, from northern New England on up. If only the Pilgrims had landed farther north...

Editor’s note: For more on gardening, see the Monitor’s main gardening page, which offers articles on many gardening topics. Also, check out our blog archive and our RSS feed. You may want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our contests.

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