Biology & Culture Of The Lingonberry, Vaccinium vitis-idaea

 

Article by Richard G. St-Pierre, Ph.D.

 

This article is a web version of St-Pierre, R.G. 1996. The Lingonberry - A Versatile Wild Cranberry. Department of Horticulture Science, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon. Third Edition. 10 pp., which is out-of-print. The web version of this monograph has been somewhat revised and updated from the original. Note, however, that some of the information may be dated.

 

Introduction

 

The lingonberry, or dry ground cranberry as it is more commonly known in Saskatchewan, is a common wild fruit species found in our northern forests. It is closely related to the commercially important bog cranberry, which is widely used in North America at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The fruit of both the lingonberry and bog cranberry are similar in character.

 

Traditionally, northern peoples around the world have made extensive use of the lingonberry. The fruit have been an important part of northern Eurasian diets for centuries. The lingonberry is considered one of the most important edible wild fruits in northern Canada by aboriginal peoples, and many historical references to the lingonberry have been made by European explorers.

 

The lingonberry has many common names. In Norway, Denmark and Germany, it is called tyttebaer; in Sweden, lingon; in Finland, puolukka. The Cree call the lingonberry wisakimin and the Inuit have several names including keepmingyuk, keepmik, and toomalgleet. It is called cowberry in Britain, partridgeberry in Newfoundland, foxberry in Nova Scotia, and rock cranberry, mountain cranberry, dry ground cranberry, or low bush cranberry in other parts of Canada and Alaska.

 

Culinary, Medicinal And Other Uses

 

The primary use of the lingonberry is as a fruit. The fruit can be used fresh or frozen, incorporated into sauces, syrups, jellies, pie fillings, added to baking, bannock, stuffing, made into an excellent drink when sweetened and diluted with water, ginger ale, or soda, and fermented to make wine or liqueur. When mixed with rosehips, an excellent jam can be made.

 

Being closely related to the bog cranberry, lingonberries apparently share many of the same medicinal attributes. Lingonberries can be used as a digestive aid because they are said to stimulate the production of gastric secretions; they have been used to relieve indigestion and heartburn. Lingonberry plants contain a compound called arbutin which is useful in treating bladder and intestinal disorders, and urinary tract infections; tea made from the the leaves and berries contains arbutin. Some native peoples apply the crushed fruit to itchy skin problems, such as measles. The leaves are astringent and antiseptic and can be used in herbal steams and rinses for skin and hair. An interesting Breton legend tells of the miracle of a young girl whose amputated arms regrew after she bathed in an infusion of lingonberries.

 

Stems and leaves of lingonberries, when mixed with alum as a fixing agent, can be used to produce yellow and red dyes for natural fibres.

 

The lingonberry can also be used as an ornamental ground cover.

 

Botany

 

The lingonberry belongs to the heath family (Ericaceae) and occurs widely in north-temperate, boreal and sub-arctic regions.

 

The latin name of the lingonberry is Vaccinium vitis-idaea. This species is comprised of two primary varieties, or subspecies: Vaccinium vitis-idaea var. vitis-idaea, which occurs in Europe and northern Asia; and Vaccinium vitis-idaea var. minus which occurs in Canada, Alaska, New England, and other northern states, but also in northern Eurasia.

 

The lingonberry is a woody, evergreen, dwarf shrub that has creeping branches and underground stems (rhizomes). The plants spread by these underground stems and can form dense patches. The root system is sparse and shallow. The variety minus may attain a maximum height of 20 cm, whereas the variety vitis-idaea may attain 60 cm in height at maturity.

 

In the variety minus, the leaves are evergreen, about 1 cm long, oval in shape, but rounded at the tips, with the edges rolled under. The undersurface of the leaf is cream-colored with small dark dots. This characteristic helps one to distinguish the lingonberry from the bearberry (kinnikinnick), which has leaves that are pale-green and veiny beneath. The leaves of the variety vitis-idaea are similar to those of the blueberry, being more pointed in shape, and about 2.5 cm long.

 

Although the lingonberry is hardy and drought-resistant, it is not a strong competitor. It grows best in rapidly, well-drained sites, especially under jack pine. However, it may be found on exposed, dry slopes, or in acid-peat bogs, muskeg, and mature, shady forest. The lingonberry does not grow well after forest disturbance such as clear-cut logging.

 

Flower And Fruit Production

 

The flowers occur in compact clusters at the ends of the branches, are cup-shaped, and vary from white to pink in color.

 

Marketable yields can be limited by poor fruit set which can be caused by inadequate pollination, self-pollination, and cold temperatures during flowering. Spring frosts, drought, and too much rain can cause bud, flower and immature fruit loss, such that 30 to 100% of the potential crop is lost. A temperature of -1.5oC can cause mortality in 50% of opened flowers. Temperatures of -3 to -3.5oC can cause 50% of the flower buds and unripe berries to be lost.

 

High temperatures, greater than 25oC, and low temperatures, less than 10oC, can inhibit pollen tube growth, and therefore result in poor fruit set.

 

Although partially self-fertile, cross-pollination by insects, especially bumblebees, results in an increase of fruit set from 30 to 60%. One study found that a spray of 500 ppm gibberellic acid (a naturally-occurring growth regulating chemical), applied at a concentration of 80 ml/m2 at 75% full bloom, could induce the development of seedless fruit in the absence of insect pollination.

 

Flowering primarily occurs in June in Saskatchewan from buds that were initiated the previous year. In warmer climates, such as the state of Washington, two periods of flowering occur, late-April and late-August; thus two fruit crops are produced, one in late-July, and the other in late-November. Fruit ripen about 78 to 90 days after flowering occurs. The fruit vary from 0.5 to 1.2 cm in diameter. Seedlings take from 3 to 6 years to produce a reasonable fruit crop.

 

The fruit are juicy, tart, lemony, bright red and contain large amounts of vitamin C and pectin. They are also rich in benzoic acid, which acts as a natural preservative, and helps make the fruit quite acidic (pH 2.5). Fruit of the variety vitis-idaea apparently contain more benzoic acid and are less susceptible to bacterial fruit rots, than fruit of the variety minus.

 

Reports of yields are extremely variable. Natural yields tend to be low, varying from about 500 to 1,000 kg/ha depending on plant age, density, and growing conditions. In the Scandinavian countries, fertilized forests can yield 3,000 kg/ha of lingonberries; the cultivation of lingonberries on peat can yield 5,000 to 9,000 kg/ha.

 

Cultivars

 

Cultivars of the Eurasian variety, vitis-idaea include Erntedank, Erntekrone, Erntesegen, Koralle, Masovia, Red Pearl, Regal, Sanna, Scarlet, Splendor and Sussi.

 

Sanna and Sussi are licensed by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and Regal and Splendor are licensed by the University of Wisconsin. Sanna appears to be a very productive cultivar; in 1995 in Sweden, yields attained 900 g of fruit per plant.

 

Sources Of Material

 

Few nurseries in North America appear to stock lingonberry plants. The following is a list of the known suppliers (primarily of cultivars of the variety vitis-idaea):

 

DeGrandchamp's Nursery, 15575 77th Street, South Haven, MI 49090, U.S.A. Tel: (616) 637-3915; Fax: (616) 637-2531.

 

Hartmann's Plantation Inc., 310 60th Street, P.O. Box E, Grand Junction, MI 49056, U.S.A. Tel: (616) 253-4281.

 

Kato's Nursery Ltd., 29435 Downes Road, RR #2, Matsqui, B.C. V4X 1S3. Tel: (604) 856-2470; (604) 857-0036; Fax: (604) 856-9307.

 

Northwoods Nursery, 28696 S. Cramer Road, Molalla, OR 97038, U.S.A.; Tel: (503) 651-3737.

 

Superior plants of the variety minus may be collected and propagated from wild stands.

 

Propagation

 

Lingonberries may be propagated through the use of seed, transplants, cuttings, rhizome pieces, and tissue culture.

 

Seed

 

The reported methods for seed germination are not well-defined; germination is considered erratic.

 

One study found that 76% of seed extracted from fresh fruit germinates when immediately seeded on sand:peat:soil, 1:1:1. Another study determined that, after a stratification period of 2 to 4 months at 4oC, seeds subsequently germinate in 2 to 3 weeks at 25oC in light. A third study found that a germination of 87% occurred in 59 days under conditions of 16 h days at 26oC, and 8 h nights at 24oC.

 

Both scarification in 0.003% sulfuric acid, and storage of extracted seed, inhibit germination.

 

Transplants

 

Plant clumps can be carefully excavated from the wild in early-spring, or fall, when no active growth is occurring. As many of the roots as possible should be obtained, and they should not be allowed to dry out. Unfortunately, only a small proportion of such transplants will become successfully established.

 

Cuttings

 

The simplest and most successful method of propagation is to take shoot cuttings in late-June/early-July. These are stuck in peat plus 10% perlite, without rooting hormone, and placed in a mist bed with bottom heat.

 

Mature or soft shoot cuttings have also been taken in the spring (especially mid-April to mid-June) and autumn. These have been dipped in a solution or powder containing 6,000 ppm IBA, and stuck in peat in a mist bed. About 85% of such cuttings will root in a period of 2 to10 weeks.

 

Rooted cuttings will produce abundant fruit in the season following rooting, however, those of the variety minus have a poor capacity for vegetative spread because very few rhizomes are produced.

 

Rhizomes

 

The use of rhizomes for propagation is laborious because they are much more difficult to obtain. Rhizome pieces 5 cm in length are treated in the same manner as shoot cuttings, but only 60 to 80% of such pieces will root.

 

Micropropagation

 

The propagation of lingonberries through tissue culture is relatively problem-free and successful, but requires specialized equipment and techniques. One advantage of micropropagated lingonberries is that the plantlets produced have a rhizomatous growth habit, and therefore spread more quickly once transplanted.

 

Management Practices

 

The cultivation of lingonberries has substantial potential for the production of a reliable supply of large quantities of quality fruit for commercial processing. Recent efforts at cultivation were initiated in Scandinavia and Alaska in the mid-1960's and suggest that yields from cultivated lingonberries are several times greater than what can be obtained in the wild.

 

Currently, there are about 20 ha of commercial plantations in Germany, and 1 ha (consisting of many smaller plantations) in Sweden.

 

Soil

 

The lingonberry requires an acidic soil, ranging in pH from 2.7 to 6; a pH of 4.5 to 5.5 is suggested. Generally speaking, lingonberries grow best in sandy loam soils having excellent drainage. The soil must be low in calcium and high in organic matter (2 to 3% minimum) to ensure good root development.

 

It is advisable to find naturally acidic soils because acidification of prairie soils is usually not practical; the high lime content of these soils will neutralize acidifiers over time.

 

If an attempt is to be made to acidify soil of a pH that is too high, elemental sulfur or aluminum sulfate can be used to decrease the pH. Elemental sulfur, applied at 37 gm/m2 for every pH unit of decrease desired, is required on sandy soils; loamy soils require 3 times this amount. Sulfur must be added the year before planting. Aluminum sulfate can be added in the same year as planting, but at a rate 6 times that of sulfur.

 

Lingonberries can be grown in large, deep containers for gardens, although these must be overwintered in a trench covered with snow.

 

Site Selection And Preparation

 

A site should be chosen that has soil of an appropriate pH, few or no large stones, and few shrubs or trees. A site near a source of water that can be used for irrigation is an advantage. It is important to choose a site that allows for drainage of cold air, otherwise frost could become a problem.

 

The site should be prepared a year before planting. Large stones, shrubs and trees should be removed. The soil should be cultivated to a depth of 15 to 20 cm and all perennial weeds destroyed.

 

Transplanting

 

Transplanting is best done in early-spring or fall, although summer planting should be successful if plants are kept well irrigated. For the variety vitis-idaea, rows 1 m wide having 4 to 7 plants per square meter, and with rows 1 to 1.5 m apart, will allow for the quickest plantation establishment (because of their smaller size, plants of the variety minus can be spaced at a density 2 to 3 times greater). Two cultivars should be transplanted together, 90% of the primary cultivar, and 10% of the second choice, in order to enhance pollination. When transplanting, the root system should be covered by about 1.5 cm of soil. Fertilizer should never be applied at planting time, or in the planting hole. Row width can be maintained by rototilling.

 

Mulching And Shading

 

Mulching increases plant growth, yield and fruit size, and decreases weed growth, soil water loss, and winter heaving. Mulching may also increase the rate of plant spread.

 

Sawdust and peat mulches, 10 cm thick, appear best for weed suppression. However, some investigations in Sweden suggest that these mulches may increase the risk of frost damage at flowering time. A gravel mulch is best for control of frost because it allows heat to reradiate from the soil at night.

 

Where snow cover is inadequate, a straw mulch can be used for protection from winter temperatures.

 

Shading increases shoot growth but decreases yield; full sunlight maximizes growth and leaf production.

 

Irrigation

 

Lingonberries require an even supply of water, especially during dry periods in May and June. Because root and rhizome growth is slow, good moisture levels must be maintained in the top 2 to 3 cm of soil. The soil must be well-drained and aerated. Soils that stay saturated favour root rot organisms (Phytophthora).

 

Fertilization

 

Lingonberries have low nutrient requirements; fertilizer recommendations for bog cranberries may be applicable, but it is very important not to overfertilize. Inadequate nutrition will result in reduced growth and yield, and possibly visible deficiency symptoms. Annual monitoring of soil and leaf tissue nutrient levels over several years will allow for an adequate evaluation of nutrient requirements. In managed wild stands, fertilization may increase yields 2 to 3 times, but will also strongly increase weed competition over time.

 

One study determined that 11-11-22 plus trace elements, applied at 12 to 25 kg/ha, provided for only a slight increase in shoot growth and yield.

 

A sulphate-based fertilizer such as ammonium sulphate is suggested. Once plants have become established in the first year, 2 dilute applications of 20-0-20, 4 weeks apart, will improve growth. In subsequent years, ammonium sulphate can be applied when growth first appears in the spring and 4 weeks later, at 28 kg/ha for each application.

 

Pruning

 

Lingonberries are slow to establish themselves. Five to six years may be required for dense rows to become established. No pruning will be required for the first 4 to 6 years. Subsequently, alternate rows or fields can be mowed to a height of 2.5 cm every 3 to 4 years for the variety minus, and every 2 to 3 years for the variety vitis-idaea. This cycle will increase shoot density and yield. Mowing should only be done in late-fall when the plants have gone dormant.

 

Weed Control

 

Perennial weeds must be eradicated before planting. During plant establishment, cultivation must be done carefully so as not to disturb rhizome spread; hand hoeing may be best.

 

Diseases And Insect Pests

 

A number of diseases are known to infect the lingonberry, but no insect pests appear important.

 

One disease, Godronia folicolia, is widespread among lingonberry patches in northern Saskatchewan, and is apparently the cause of death of a substantial number of plants. Plants infected with this fungus have leaves that appear blistered and gray in color.

 

Red leaf and rose bloom is caused by Exobasidium vaccinii, but this disease seems important only in wild populations. Minor leaf spots may be caused by Mycosphaerella stemmatea. Mummified fruit are caused by Sclerotinia spp. (probably urrula). Leaf rust may be caused by Pucciniastrum vaccinii. A stem canker also occurs, but the causal organism has not been identified. Witch's broom, characterized by tiny, light green leaves and abundant erect branching, may be caused by Pucciniastrum goeppertianum, and also an unidentified mycoplasma-like organism.

 

Harvesting

 

Lingonberries must not be picked too soon, or the fruit will be bitter. One or more frosts improve fruit quality. The berries can even be picked in the spring after overwintering and are still of excellent quality.

 

Hand-picking can yield 8 to10 kg/day of clean, ripe berries. Berry combs are used to harvest berries that are to be processed for juices, jams, and wines. A berry comb can yield 40 to 45 kg/day, but the harvest contains stems, leaves, and needles. Subsequent winnowing and washing is necessary.

 

Storage

 

Lingonberries may be dried, frozen, or packed in water in plastic-lined cartons. They may also be boiled, cooled, mixed with an equal amount of sugar, and stored in sterilized jars.

 

Processing And Marketing

 

The lingonberry appears to have significant potential for commercial production. The fruit are tremendously versatile and amenable to a wide variety of processed products.

 

For northern Europe, Alaska, and Newfoundland, lingonberries have value as a specialty fruit crop and provide significant income as an export product. Annual harvests and consumption range from 12 to 20 million kg in Sweden and Finland with Germany being the primary importer. Harvests in Newfoundland have approached 154,000 kg annually with about 38,000 kg being exported to Europe and the United States. Value-added products such as preserves, jellies, juices and syrups have also been exported to, and marketed in Japan. A litre of lingonberry sauce from Sweden sells in Canada for about $12.00. As a specialty fruit crop, the lingonberry is of fairly high cash value.

 

Lingonberries are well suited to the organic market and cottage industry processing.

 

Technical References Consulted

 

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Fernqvist, I. 1977. Results of experiments with cowberries and blueberries in Sweden. Acta Horticulturae 61: 295-300.

Hall, I.V., and Beil, C.E. 1970. Seed germination, pollination, and growth of Vaccinium vitis-idaea var. minus Lodd. Canadian Journal of Plant Science 50: 731-732.

Hall, I.V., and Shay, J.M. 1981. The biological flora of Canada. 3. Vaccinium vitis-idaea L. var. minus Lodd. Supplementary account. Canadian Field Naturalist 95 (4): 434-464.

Holloway, P.S. 1984. Lingonberry cultivation. Agroborealis 16(2):15-20.

Holloway, P.S., Van Veldhuizen, R.M., Stushnoff, C., and Wildung, D.K. 1982a. Vegetative growth and nutrient levels of lingonberries grown in four Alaskan substrates. Canadian Journal of Plant Science 62: 969-977.

Holloway, P.S., Van Veldhuizen, R.M., Stushnoff, C., and Wildung, D.K. 1982b. Effects of light intensity on vegetative growth of lingonberries. Canadian Journal of Plant Science 62: 965-968.

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Hosier, M.A., Flatebo, G., and Read, P.E. 1985. In vitro propagation of lingonberry. HortScience 20(3): 364-365.

Ingestad, T. 1973. Mineral nutrient requirements of Vaccinium vitis-idaea and V. myrtillus. Physiologia Plantarum 29: 239-246.

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