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Lingonberries
(Vaccinium vitis-idaea)


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lingonberries

Lingonberries, which we have had in various forms in Scandinavia, where they are immensely popular, are a most flavorsome berry (think of them as a superior sort of cranberry), and are an excellent, too-little-known crop for this region, being native to climates very much like ours (in fact, Washington and Oregon now lead the world in lingonberry production).

Lingonberries are known by many other names: red whortleberries, cowberries, fox berries, mountain cranberries, mountain bilberries, partridgeberries, tyttebær (Norwegian & Danish), rauðber (Icelandic), puolukka (Finnish), and lingon (in Swedish).

Lingonberries can be eaten fresh, though they are quite tart (they actually have a lot of sugar, more than blueberries, and can be preserved in just their own juice, but they also have a lot of acid); but they are especially good in various cooked forms. They used to be an important staple in the northern-tier states and in Canada, but have become less known in modern times: that is a defect that needs curing, as they are wonderful berries and fairly easy to grow. Especially famous is lingonberry jam (rårörda lingon), which can be made easily with no cooking: just stir the raw berries with a small amount of sugar.

Lingonberries typically fruit twice a year, though some varieties can have three fruitings. The first, in spring, is invariably very small and essentially useless. The second is the true yield flush, though at least one variety (Ida) is said to have a third, late-fall flush that is also productive.


Lingonberry Cultivars

With their slowly increasing popularity in the western hemisphere, a good number of named cultivars have become available to the both the commercial and the home gardener (a 2006 paper states that 21 distinct cultivars are being grown in the Pacific Northwest, and names and describes them). But ready availability for the home grower still seems limited to not over half a dozen or so types; the only ones we have seen offered are:

Though lingonberries are nominally self-pollinating, it is consensus that they are much more productive when cross-pollinated; we thus want at least two different cultivars planted. The three most promising seem to be, in no special order, Balsgard, Ida, and Koralle; of those, from the literature it looks like Balsgard is a no-brainer; we'd be inclined to grow one pot of each of the three, but it may come down to which nurseries have what. Start from Balsgard, then look for at least one of the other two.


Lingonberry Cultivation

Culture is highly similar to that of blueberries, as described farther above, with these exceptions:

  1. pH: lingonberries are even more acid-loving than blueberries, and a good planting mix is 10% perlite, 10% peat moss, and 80% pine bark, with the traditional small handful of soil sulfur.

  2. container size: a five-gallon (12-inch) pot suffices for a mature lingonberry plant (mulch with 3 to 4 inches of sawdust).

  3. watering: don't over-water; better a bit dry than a bit wet.

  4. fertilizer: don't over-fertilize--use a light hand.

  5. sunlight: though most sources say the more the better, one university project found partial shade to work well; with our short but hot summers, that seems worth trying.


Lingonberry Culture

As with blueberries, and for much the same reasons, lingonberries are best grown in containers. They are even smaller than blueberries (except perhaps some low-bush blueberries) and can be grown in fairly small containers, from 10 to 12 inches in size. As their Scandinavian popularity would suggest, lingonberries are very cold-hardy (usually listed to Zone 2, though there may be minor variations by cultivar). They are evergreens, and stay in leaf through the winter. In the right soil, they spread slowly but inexorably through underground rhizome growth, but adapt well to container growing. It is not a good idea to interplant them with blueberry bushes, despite the similar soil requirements, because blueberries have extensive but shallow root systems, with which lingonberry rhizomes can get badly tangled.

Lingonberries are self-pollinating, but having multiple types around for cross-pollination will produce larger and earlier-ripening fruits (and it helps to have bumblebees around).

Lingonberries typically bloom twice, once in early spring and once in summer; the first blooms are usually too early to avoid frost damage (the plants are terrifically hardy, but the blooms are only hardy to about 30° F.), but the second crop is normally plentiful. Plants will probably bear right away, but need two to three years to reach best productivity. It pays, for several reasons, to buy them as plants, even though they can be grown from seed; as always with fruits and berries, buy from a reputable specialist house, preferably one in your climate or close to it.

Besides acidity, lingonberries like a free-draining soil, preferably a peaty one or a light loamy soil with added leaf-mould, or even sawdust. They can stand a fair bit of shade, but yield best in full sun. Lingonberries are light feeders so don't over-fertilize: one source remarks, in a note to commercial growers, that "Lingonberries are quite sensitive to over-fertilization." Pay more attention to maintaining the soil pH good and acid. It is also advisable to mulch lingonberries, ideally with peat moss, adding more from time to time as the plants grow.


More

Relevant Links

Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful:

(And don't forget that we have listings of nurseries on our suppliers page.)


Odds and Ends

Biology

Often also called cowberries, partridgeberries, or mountain cranberries, lingonberries are small evergreen shrubs in the flowering plant family Ericaceae. Their native habitat is the circumboreal forests of northern Eurasia and North America, from temperate into subarctic climates.

There are two very similar regional varieties of V. vitis-idaea in Eurasia and North America:

Lingonberries are related to cranberries, but are by no means the same thing; nonetheless, the many names used for each cause some confusion, and not a few people think they are identical.


History

Lingonberries were long harvested in the wild by all the peoples of northern latitudes in both the Old World and the New World, and were considered an important staple. It is only in relatively modern times that cultivation, and cultivar selection, has taken place.


Envoi

In Sweden and Norway, reindeer steak is traditionally served with gravy and lingonberry sauce. Urf.


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