Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Groundcovers- Northern Mountain Cranberry

Each Spring, when the snow melts away, one of the first plants to appear is one of my favorite little groundcovers with a long Latin name.  It's Vaccinium vitis-idaea L. ssp. minus and we have a large patch of it growing just off the stone path at the entrance to the courtyard garden.  Also known as 'northern mountain cranberry,' you can tell by its Latin name that it is a member of the blueberry family.  Among its relatives are Vaccinium macrocarpon, the American cranberry, Vaccinium angustifolium, the lowbush blueberry, Vaccinium myrtillus, bilberry, and Vaccinium vitis-idaea, which is lingonberry (aka cowberry).

The mountain cranberry grows in northern climates as an understory plant in a variety of forest habitats and is able to survive poor soils and harsh conditions. In its native habitat, it can often go unnoticed.  But, here in mountainous New Hampshire, hikers and climbers usually spot it as they're sitting on a rock, trying desperately to catch their breath, while cursing whoever it was that talked them into such a difficult climb in the first place.  In at least four states, including Massachusetts, the plant is listed as endangered.  In the wild, the small berries of mountain cranberry are an important food source for a variety of birds and mammals.  The berries are also palatable for humans and, in Japan and Europe, the fruit is widely processed and marketed.  I have tried them.  They're not horrible but I'll stick to my Vacciniums in the form of blueberry pie, thank you.

In our garden we have mountain cranberry planted in soil that contains heavy amounts of gravel.  We started our approximately 30 sq. ft. patch in the courtyard garden with three very small plants and we have since divided many of the offspring of these parents to begin new planting areas in other parts of the garden. Here in our Zone 5, the plant has had no problem with the cold winters.  However, we get plenty of snow here ( plenty meaning enough, already! ) and new plantings of mountain cranberry can be at risk if the temperatures dip too low in the absence of protective snow cover. 

photographed April 6th
The plant is evergreen and at this time of the year, the foliage of mountain cranberry takes on a wonderful burgundy tint.  As for warm summer days (where are you, by the way?) our plantings don't seem to be bothered at all with summer heat. They are all in full sun, with a good mulch of pea gravel which helps to retain adequate moisture.

Mountain cranberry is very low growing (2-6 inches) and grows in dense rhizomatous colonies that typically form mats.  The roots are extremely fine, fibrous, and shallow growing and so, until established, it is fairly easy to dislodge young plants if care is not taken.  Flowering occurs for us here beginning in late May.  It's not the kind of plant that will stop photographers in their tracks, but the small, pinkish, bell-shaped flowers are quite attractive as they appear in little clusters at the end of branch tips; fruit ripens in late August, early September.

I have a love-hate relationship with a lot of ground covers.  Many of them are like relatives who have come to spend the weekend and end up staying a week.  Things start out pretty good but, before long, they've completely taken over the place.  Mountain cranberry is not like this.  It's polite, minds its manners, is easy to control and, unlike some relatives I know, doesn't drink all of your beer and wine.

Vaccinium vitis-idaea minus can sometimes be hard to find at local nurseries.  We obtained our first three plants from Uncanoonuc Mountain Perennials, in Goffstown, NH.  A little extra care has to be taken to get young plants feeling comfortable in their new location.  However, once established, mountain cranberry makes a beautiful spreading evergreen groundcover that brings with it both flower and fruit.  How many relatives do that?


  1. Joe,
    Great post. Now I want it!! Does Uncanoonuc still have this plant, I couldn't find it in their catalogue.

  2. Thanks, Michael. I haven't seen it at Uncanoonuc in a season or two but there are a couple here with your name on them. Maybe if Nettie reads this post, she'll be able to tell us when Uncanoonuc will stock it again.--Joe

  3. Joe, As I am always looking for ground covers, this one I love!Looks like I need to take a ride up to Goffstown and pick up a few, I have just the right spaces for them. I am so enjoying your website, informative and fun! Anne Nelson

  4. Thanks, Anne! This really is a pretty little groundcover. I need to check around a little more for it's availability. As you probably read in my last comment, Uncanoonuc has not had this in stock for a season or two. There is much confusion, however, over the common name of this plant. I have seen it listed in nursery catalogues as lingonberry, dwarf lingonberry, cowberry, as well as a few others. It should not be confused with bearberry (Arctostaphylos), however, which is another similar looking groundcover that is usually more readily available but a completely unrelated plant. If I find more sources for mountain cranberry, I'll post them here. Hope to see you in this part of the world soon!--Joe

  5. Last year I found a ground cover called Gaylussacia Brachycera (box huckleberry) a member of the Ericaceae family. It was originally named Vaccinium buxifolium. Considered a blueberry cousin. It looks similar to your photo Joe (resembling boxwood and blueberry). Supposedly a survivor of the ice age. There is a colony in Perry County, PA, (maybe Michael knows this) that is over 13,000 years old. Of course it is protected and endangered. Mine survived the winter, so I'll keep you posted. Has wonderful fall color and tasteless blue berries.

  6. Sounds interesting, Maude! Will be anxious to see this one in your garden.--Joe

  7. Hi, Joe-

    We're big fans of dwarf lingonberry too. Our source for rooted cuttings disappeared a few years ago. We tried getting them in finished, but our cost including freight drove them over the $20 mark. That is just plain too much. Determined to have even a few, we dug and potted from our patch in the display garden. We have a whopping 6 full and fluffy plants at $12.50 each. If someone wants to reserve them I'd be happy to put them on hold. If we can find a source for rooted cuttings or bare root plants we'll definitely grow it again.


    Looking forward to seeing you.
    Happy Spring!


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