February 21, 2020

Spot of Tundra Produces Jewel of a Berry


Janine Pineo Photo | Lingonberries

• By Janine Pineo •

They are small and somewhat pathetic, with not even enough to fill 2 tablespoons.

But I rejoiced anyway.

The lingonberries have fruit this year.

I had just hauled an armload of trellis supports up to the gardening shed last weekend and happened to look down — way down — as I turned to walk back to the vegetable garden.

Glistening like tiny red pearls among shiny evergreen leaves were lingonberries, more than I’d ever seen on the diminutive bushes. I pulled off my gloves, picked a few and popped them into my mouth.

Sweet but tart, the way one wishes a cranberry would taste without adding sugar.


Probably best known as a Scandinavian crop, lingonberry is a close relative of two beloved Maine berries: blueberry and cranberry. Lingonberry will grow equally well in Maine; the mystery is why Vaccinium vitis-idaea isn’t more common here.

It can’t be because of its looks. The lingonberry itself is a ruby red jewel when fully ripe. The leaves are as green and glossy as holly ever could hope to be, but without the sharp points, and they stay that way all year long. The bush’s size makes the word bush seem too unwieldy a word for such a delicate plant: Some varieties reach only about 8 inches tall (that would be what I have) with the biggest hybrids topping out at 2 feet in the best of conditions.

It can’t be because lingonberry’s growing requirements are troublesome. It requires the same acidity that blueberries adore, in the 4.5 to 5.5 pH range, which seems to be naturally occurring in much of the state. And it likes steady moisture, but not enough to rot the roots.

Most growing instructions focus on adding plenty of peat to the soil, which addresses both the acidity and moisture-retention requirements. I don’t fertilize because it doesn’t like rich soil. One of my favorite reference books, “Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden” by Lee Reich, says fertilizer can burn the delicate root system and encourage the growth of rank weeds that will choke out the lingonberry. Over time, the plants will require a bit of fertilizer that is low on the nitrogen side, but if I forget, it likely won’t spell the end of the plants.

It can’t be because lingonberry is slow to multiply. Mine have expanded steadily since the year I got them as wee sprigs, producing more branches from its shallow root system with every growing season. I just realized I will have a better crop if I get a different variety to help pollinate, but what would have been the sense to do that if I couldn’t grow them in the first place?

It can’t be because they are hard to find. Years ago, that might have been an issue, but in today’s world online sources are a click away. My reference books suggest several suppliers, including Raintree Nursery (www.raintreenursery.com) in Washington state, which offers several varieties, and Hartmann’s Plant Co. (www.hartmannsplantcompany.com) in Michigan. I found my plants several years ago in the catalog for Pinetree Garden Seeds of New Gloucester. As in Maine.

It can’t be the weather requirements.

Called partridgeberry in Newfoundland and foxberry in Nova Scotia, lingonberry prefers the rugged weather of northern climes and generally doesn’t much care for the heat: Think tundra conditions. Most varieties are cold-hardy to Zone 2, although the tender shoots don’t fare well without some sort of cover to protect them from winter’s extremes that can damage the leaves and frost heaves that can push the shallow-rooted plant out of the ground.

Which is why the past couple of winters and their heavy snowfalls have been so good to the lingonberry bushes I transplanted a couple of springs ago.

I originally placed them in a raised bed I built for fruit plants, but they never did well there, with the likely culprits being not enough acidity in the soil and not enough water during the dry spells. When I replanted the bed, I moved the lingonberries near the garden shed to a corner of an awful little plot of land known for chewing up plants and spitting them out.

OK, I exaggerate. The plot drained the life out of any plant I ever put there.

I knew I was possibly signing the death warrant for the lingonberries, but I had to try.

The fact that the lingonberries have produced fruit in this most inhospitable spot confirms I have a tundra section in my yard.

Ah, the mystery is solved.

Who among us wants to admit we have a tundra section?

I proudly proclaim mine as long as it is filled with lingonberries.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in October 2009.