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Mountain Cranberry

September 3, 2010

Location: Mount Washington, NH
The clouds swirled around us, turning the rocky landscape a dull gray as we descended from the summit of Mount Washington. We picked our way from cairn to cairn across the massive alpine shoulder of the mountain. The talus had petered out, but the footing remained precarious on the wet rocks laced with mud and sprigs of sedge. A couple of red dots caught my eye beside the trail. Though the alpine wildflowers and blueberries had long faded on this late August morning, the mountain cranberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) were just ripening bright crimson.
A plant of many nicknames – lingonberry, cowberry, foxberry, quailberry, red whortleberry, lowbush cranberry, mountain bilberry and partridgeberry – mountain cranberry is considered an evergreen shrub, though it looks like a ground cover. Like the cranberries crushed into relish at Thanksgiving, mountain cranberry need constant moisture and thrive in acidic soil. They are related, but distinct, not only because of their differences in elevation, but also their flower and fruit shapes. Mountain cranberry flowers are white, not pink, with petals that partially enclose the stamens and stigma, rather than flex backward. The smaller, rounder mountain fruit tastes bitter like its domestic cousin, but mixed with sugar and made into jam, compote or syrup, they are one of my favorite mountain delicacies.

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