Inedible Edibles: Highbush Cranberry Apple Butter

highbush cranberry viburnum along the Yahara River
highbush cranberry viburnum along the Yahara River

Highbush cranberry isn’t a cranberry at all. It’s a viburnum – a native understory shrub – and is prolific both in urban and natural areas. These are just now ripening around Madison, and so I grabbed one to eat on a recent walk with Tehya.

I immediately spit it out. Way too tart. Even fully ripe. Not bitter so much, just really, really tart. But these shrubs are everywhere, and they produce copiously, so I wasn’t ready to give up.

Tehya heading out for a swim
capital city trail apples

Despite their seeming inedibleness, I gathered a quart or so of ripe berries off shrubs lining the Yahara River. I had just gotten back from a bike ride on the Capital City trail where I had gathered several bushels of apples from my favorite neglected apple trees. So I quartered the apples and threw them in the crock pot with the cranberries, a cup or so of honey, and grated cinnamon and nutmeg. After a couple hours, I stirred the mix, mushing up the fruit. It was still pretty tart, so I added another cup of honey. After 8 hours, I mixed the mush in a strainer to remove the seeds and skins. What was left was a wonderfully sweet and tart (but not too tart) apple butter. I canned some of it and the rest I used to bake zucchini bread and on french toast. I’m sure there are many other ways to use this seemingly inedible fruit, but this one works well. The tartness can be toned down by cooking the berries in sugar or honey, and compliments well sweet fruits like apples. Next, I’m going to try cooking them down in port to make a cranberry sauce. Fall turkey season is right around the corner.


-According to Plants for a future, these fruits can cause sickness if eaten in sufficient quantities raw. That would be really difficult though; these berries are tough to eat raw.

-Look out for nightshade vines which may grow up through the shrub itself. These also produce bright red berries which are toxic.

Ripening nightshade berries alongside cranberries. Watch out!