Garden Word of the Day
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Native to boreal and arctic forests, lingonberries are close cousins to cranberries.
Used to make jam, syrup, and sauce, lingonberries are very tart, tasting like a cross between cranberries and raspberries.
Lingonberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) are also known as cowberries, mountain cranberries, partridgeberries, cougarberries, beaverberries, and several other animal-berry combinations, depending on where they are found.
Lingonberries are tough, short evergreen shrubs. They rarely grow more than 18” in height. Plants produce white to pink bell-shaped flowers and bright red edible berries. Broad, oval leaves grow alternately along rounded stems. Unlike most broadleaf plants, lingonberries retain their leaves all year. Fruit is bitter early in the season but sweetens somewhat through winter. Even at its sweetest, lingonberries are very tart.
Plants spread out using underground stems, called rhizomes. Lingonberry plants are self-pollinating, but crops are larger and ripen earlier when more than one plant is nearby. Each plant blooms twice a year, creating the potential for two crops. Flowers are not frost-hardy, so the first crop is often lost to a late frost, but these tiny shrubs are very prolific.
There are two regional subspecies of lingonberry. The Eurasian lingonberry (V. vitis-idaea subsp. vitis-idaea) has larger leaves that can be more than 1” long. The North American lingonberry (V. vitis-idaea var. minus) has much smaller leaves, usually less than 1/2” long.
Sadly, some North American populations and subspecies of lingonberry are now in trouble. Specifically, the Michigan lingonberry is endangered and the Connecticut lingonberry is believed to be extinct.
How to grow lingonberries
Lingonberry plants need cold weather and good drainage. They can tolerate temperatures as low as -40°F but cannot grow well in areas with hot summers. Lingonberries grow best in moist, acidic soils (pH 4.2-5.2) under the type of shade one would find under a forest canopy. [That certainly rules out my yard.]
If you live in U.S. Hardiness Zones 3-8, you can grow your own lingonberries. Most people start with potted seedlings from a reputable supplier. You can also grow lingonberries from cuttings or divided roots. Just remember to place live plants in quarantine before adding them to your landscape.
At planting time, dig a hole that is large enough to allow the roots to spread out, making sure that the planting depth remains the same. You don’t want to bury the crown or stem. Plants should be spaced 12” apart. Do not tamp down the soil. Instead, mud in your new plants. This will protect the delicate root hairs that plants need to take up water and nutrients.
Weeds are the biggest threat to your lingonberry plants. A thick mulch of wood chips around the plants can reduce that problem and improve soil structure, help retain moisture, and eventually add nutrients to the soil. Your lingonberries will not require much in the way of fertilizer. In fact, adding too much nitrogen increases the odds of your plant dying in winter. A better choice would be to top dress around your lingonberry plants with a little bit of aged compost or fish emulsion and leave them be. You can also use a complete fertilizer, such as 5-10-5 each spring.
Lingonberries perform well in raised beds and containers. You should protect your lingonberry plants from severe winds. Lingonberry plants are sensitive to chlorides, which means your need to keep them away from chlorinated pool water, de-icing salts, and fertilizers containing potassium chloride.
Lingonberry pests and diseases
Birds, bears, and foxes love lingonberries. So do aphids, armyworms, mealybugs, and whiteflies. Bacterial leaf spot and gray mold may occur, but these diseases can often be prevented by not watering from above. Instead, use soaker hoses or furrow irrigation to keep water off the leaves.
Not everyone lives where lingonberries grow. If you do, you owe it to yourself to give them a try.
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