Vaccinium vitis-idaea (lingonberry or cowberry) is a short evergreen shrub in the heath family that bears edible sour, slightly sweet, slightly bitter fruit, native to boreal forest and Arctic tundra throughout the Northern Hemisphere from Eurasia to North America. In the past it was seldom cultivated, but fruit was commonly collected in the wild. Recently, commercial cultivation has begun in the U.S. Pacific Northwest.
The genus name Vaccinium is derived from the Latin word vaccinium ("of or relating to cows", from vacca "cow") for a type of berry (possibly the bilberry, Vaccinium myrtillus). The specific name is derived from the New Latin word for lingonberries, vitis-idaea; itself ultimately derived from Latin vitis ("vine") and idaea, the feminine form of idaeus (literally "from Mount Ida", used in reference to raspberries, Rubus idaeus).
There are at least twenty-five other common names of Vaccinium vitis-idaea worldwide. Other names include csejka berry, foxberry, quailberry, beaverberry, mountain cranberry, red whortleberry, bearberry, lowbush cranberry, cougarberry, mountain bilberry, partridgeberry (in Newfoundland and Cape Breton Island), and redberry (in Labrador). Because the names mountain cranberry and lowbush cranberry perpetuate the longstanding confusion between the cranberry and the lingonberry, some botanists[who?] have suggested that these names should be avoided.
The stems are rounded in cross-section and grow from 10 to 40 cm (4 to 16 in) in height. Leaves grow alternately and are oval, 5–30 mm (0.2–1.2 in) long, with a slightly wavy margin, and sometimes with a notched tip.
The flowers are bell-shaped, white to pale pink, 3–8 mm (0.1–0.3 in) long, and produced in the early summer.
It is extremely hardy, tolerating as low as -40 °C (-40 °F) or lower, but grows poorly where summers are hot.
- Vaccinium vitis-idaea var. vitis-idaea L. — syn. Vaccinium vitis-idaea subsp. vitis-idaea.
Cowberry. Eurasia. Leaves 10–30 mm (0.4–1.2 in) long.
- Vaccinium vitis-idaea var. minus Lodd. — syn. Vaccinium vitis-idaea subsp. minus (Lodd.) Hultén.
Lingonberry. North America. Leaves 5–18 mm (0.2–0.7 in) long.
The berries collected in the wild are a popular fruit in northern, central and eastern Europe, notably in Nordic countries, the Baltic states, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine. In some areas they can legally be picked on both public and private lands in accordance with the freedom to roam.
The berries are quite tart, so they are often cooked and sweetened before eating in the form of lingonberry jam, compote, juice, smoothie or syrup. The raw fruit are also frequently simply mashed with sugar, which preserves most of their nutrients and taste. This mix can be stored at room temperature in closed but not necessarily sealed containers, but in this condition, they are best preserved frozen. Fruit served this way or as compote often accompany game meats and liver dishes. In Sweden and Norway, reindeer and elk steak is traditionally served with gravy and lingonberry sauce. Preserved fruit is commonly eaten with meatballs and potatoes in Sweden and Norway, and also with pork. A traditional Swedish dessert is lingonpäron (literally lingonberry pears) which is fresh pears which are peeled and boiled in lingondricka (lingonberry squash) and then preserved in the pear-infused lingonberry squash and not uncommonly eaten during Christmas. This was very common in old times, because it was an easy and tasty way to preserve pears. In Sweden and Russia, when sugar was still a luxury item, the berries were usually preserved simply by putting them whole into bottles of water. This was known as vattlingon (watered lingonberries); the procedure preserved them until next season. This was also a home remedy against scurvy. In Russia this preserve had been known as "lingonberry water" (брусничная вода) and is a traditional soft drink. In Russian folk medicine, lingonberry water was used as a mild laxative. A traditional Finnish dish is sautéed reindeer (poronkäristys) with mashed potatoes and lingonberries, either cooked or raw with sugar. In Finland, a porridge made from the fruit is also popular. In Poland, the berries are often mixed with pears to create a sauce served with poultry or game. The berries can also be used to replace red currants when creating Cumberland sauce to give it a more sophisticated taste.
The berries are also popular as a wild picked fruit in Eastern Canada, for example in Newfoundland and Labrador and Cape Breton, where they are locally known as partridgeberries or redberries, and on the mainland of Nova Scotia, where they are known as foxberries. In this region they are incorporated into jams, syrups, and baked goods, such as pies, scones, and muffins.
Lingonberries are a staple item in Sweden, and at the Swedish retailer IKEA. It is often sold as jam and juice in the store and as a key ingredient in dishes. They are used to make Lillehammer berry liqueur, and in East European countries, lingonberry vodka is sold.
The berries are an important food for bears and foxes, and many fruit-eating birds. Caterpillars of the Coleophoridae case-bearer moths Coleophora glitzella, Coleophora idaeella and Coleophora vitisella are obligate feeders on Vaccinium vitis-idaea leaves.
The berries contain plentiful organic acids, vitamin C, provitamin A (as beta carotene), B vitamins (B1, B2, B3), and the elements potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus. In addition to these nutrients, they also contain phytochemicals that are thought to counteract urinary-tract infections, and the seeds are rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
In folk medicine, V. vitis-idaea has been used as an apéritif, astringent, antihemorrhagic, anti-debilitive, depurative, disinfectant/antiseptic (especially for the urethra), a diuretic, a tonic for the nervous system, and in various ways to treat breast cancer, diabetes mellitus, rheumatism, and various urogenital conditions.
Vaccinium vitis-idaea differs from the similar cranberries (Vaccinium oxycoccus, V. microcarpum and V. macrocarpon) in having white flowers with petals partially enclosing the stamens and stigma, rather than pink flowers with petals reflexed backwards, and rounder, less pear-shaped berries.
Other species of the genus Vaccinium include blueberries, bilberries, and huckleberries. Hybrids between Vaccinium vitis-idaea and Vaccinium myrtillus, named Vaccinium × intermedium Ruthe, are occasionally found in Europe.
- "Economic Evaluation of Lingonberry Production in Oregon" "Oregon State University Extension Service" Dec 2003 
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- Gray's Manual of Botany: Asa Gray
- Interactive Flora of Northwest Europe: Vaccinium vitis-idaea
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- "idaein". Merriam-Webster. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/idaein.
- "Raspberries". Botanical-online. http://www.botanical-online.com/english/raspberry.htm.
- Hall, Joan Houston (2002). Dictionary of American Regional English. Harvard University Press. p. 47. ISBN 0-674-00884-7. http://books.google.com/books?id=i33BWgxbvXgC&pg=PA47. Retrieved 2007-11-16.
- Flora of North America: Vaccinium vitis-idaea
- James A. Duke. "Vaccinium vitis-idaea (ERICACEAE)". Dr. Duke's Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases. http://www.ars-grin.gov/cgi-bin/duke/ethnobot.pl?ethnobot.taxon=Vaccinium%20vitis-idaea. Retrieved May 22, 2011.