Lingonberries are small red fruits which are closely related to cranberries. In fact, some people call lingonberries “mountain cranberries” or “dry bog cranberries,” which can lead to some confusion since there are some differences between the plants and their fruits. Lingonberries can be found widely distributed across the mountainous regions of the Northern Hemisphere, and they are a popular food berry, especially in Scandinavia.
The English name for this fruit is taken directly from the Swedish lingon. Botanists know lingonberries as Vaccinium vitis-idaea, and some people also refer to them as “cowberries,” perhaps because they have traditionally been used as forage by cows and reindeer. Lingonberry relish is also a traditional accompaniment for many meats in Scandinavia, much like cranberry sauce in more Southern climates.
The lingonberry bush is a small evergreen shrub with a creeping growth habit which prefers moist, acidic soil. It is often found in forests, and it may grow in harmony with an assortment of lichens and mosses. Lingonberries spread with the use of rhizomes, extensive underground root systems, and they produce small white flowers which are shaped like bells. The flowers develop into bright red fruit which can be raked up during harvest season. Although the red color might be tempting, these berries are intensely bitter, so consumers usually resist the urge to eat them plain.
In addition to being found in Scandinavia, lingonberries also grow in North America and in parts of Russia. These small red fruits are not as widely cultivated as cranberries, and they can be challenging to obtain outside of their native habitat, despite the efforts of lingonberry farmers who would like to see a wider market for the fruit. Like cranberries, lingonberries are distinctly tart, and they are usually sweetened before serving; lingonberry jam, syrup, and compote are all common offerings in Scandinavia, and they can also be used to make relishes and sauces.
In addition to sharing a tart flavor with cranberries, lingonberries also have the same chemical compounds which fight off infections, especially infections of the urinary tract. In addition, they are high in vitamins A, B, and C, along with with essential fatty acids. In the cold climates of Scandinavia, preserved lingonberries probably helped people make it through the winter without a ready source of vegetable nutrition. If you do not live in a region where fresh lingonberries are available, you may be able to find them in the form of preserves or jam, especially if you have a large Swedish population.