Foraging plants in the norwegian mountains – 15. Small cranberry Pt.1

How rich in different flora a boggy marsh area can be!

When looking for an image suitable for highlighting the small cranberry I came across this one. You can see from the covering of sphagnum moss that this is a boggy area, and although few nutrients has a very rich flora. In fact this photo was taken in the area from which I found several of my chosen species to paint.

This picture was taken in July 2019. The new small cranberry flowers are out but I also found some shrivelled berries from the previous year. You can see clearly both the flowers and the tiny leaves all attached by a very thin stem meandering through the moss. The bog bilberry leaves have a lovely red edge at this time of year and the cloudberry plants show either the red sepals of the male plant or the immature fruit. In this instance the plant we see is obviously male. The mountain crowberry also does well in the same environment.

Vaccinium oxycoccus subsp. microcarpum 

Vaccinium oxycoccus subsp. microcarpum a tiny insignificant looking plant – but an even more exciting find.

In norwegian the plant is called Tranebær, which directly translated means Crane-berry – or as we call it in English – Cranberry. 

Firstly, why Crane-berry? This is a picture of the flower and perhaps you will get a better understanding of why. 

In the USA Cranberries are farmed in huge bogs and this is a significant industry. But the cranberry is slightly different to the one I have painted and is called Vaccinium oxycoccus subsp. macrocarpum. The difference between the two species is that subspecies microcarpum is very tiny and grows wild in the mountains, whereas the subspecies macrocarpum has a much larger berry and leaves. It is generally a larger plant altogether.

As a comparison I thought it might be interesting to show some of my photos from when I was in teaching botanical art in the USA in 2016. My husband and I visited a Cranberry farm south of Boston. It was intriguing, and I learnt quite a bit about the fruit and what happened to it. Note the size of the North American species of farmed berries at 9-14 mm against the small wild cranberry at 5-8 mm.

One of the questions regularly asked at the farm was why the fruit floats. The plants grow in bogs in America and when the fruit is ripe and the area flooded, the plants are shaken mechanically, releasing the loose fruit. The fruit each have four ovaries which are also air pockets, making the berries float to the surface of the water where they are collected. The small cranberry has a similar construction.

We weren’t actually looking for the wild small cranberry when we found it. We were in a very boggy area and tracing roots of a Cloudberrry plant when we found a small, obviously preceding year’s, fruit. We noticed that running through the Sphagnum moss was a tracery of fine hair-like stems with the tiniest of leaves. We started following this until we found a flower. I had no idea what it was so had to find out. 

In 2017 when we first found the plant, I had no idea how widespread it was or if it was a fruit that people foraged for. Since then I found out that very few seem to know of its existence and it is rarely picked to make jams etc – possibly because it is so small. Since then I also noticed I didn’t see either flower or fruit reliably every year. Sometimes we were unable to find any at all, although hunting in areas we had seen it previously. 2021 was just like this perhaps due to the lack of rain for the previous eight months.

In two of the pictures above you can see the previous year’s berry. It was these that alerted us to the plant and we went on to find the flowers.

It is a very boggy area but you can see some of the other plants in the series including bog bilberry flowers and leaves and the Mountain Crowberry. The other plants there in addition to the Sphagnum moss are heather, Andromeda polifolia or Bog rosemary, Vaccinium uliginosum (Bog bilberry), and Empetrum nigrum subsp. hermaphroditum (Mountain Crowberry). 

I painted the Bog Rosemary before I moved back to Norway and this is now in the Chelsea Physic Garden collection. The Bog bilberry and Crowberry are included in this series.

Although the wild small cranberry is not well known, it is certainly a plant with edible fruit and sometimes we found quite a few. It was amazing to see the marsh dotted with small bright red fruit, making it worthwhile to pick for a dessert or decorate a Norwegian cream cake. Uhmm!

The 2nd part about the Small cranberry will be posted 11th May 2023.

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