American vs European High Bush Cranberry Viburnum

Another post in our series on native alternatives to invasive plants.

In 2005, after moving into our current house, we purchased a variety of bareroot native shrubs from the DNR to naturalize in the yard. These shrubs included Nannyberry Viburnum, High Bush Cranberry Viburnum, American Hazelnut and Red Osier Dogwood. With two years of drought they were very slow to establish until the following years when we had adequate rainfall. I noticed that some of the High Bush Cranberry were growing substantially more than others in the same area and were already flowering.


European High Bush Cranberry petiole glands

In the winter of 2008, as my High Bush Cranberry Viburnums (HBCV) had really taken off that previous summer, I was reading the book Invasive Plants of the Upper Midwest by the late Elizabeth Czarapata. In her book she describes how the European HBCV is invasive and is so similar in appearance to the native American HBCV that it’s often mistaken for the native.

The main difference between the American and European High Bush Cranberry Viburnum is the gland shape on the leaf petiole.

I anxiously waited for spring and for my HBCV to leaf out so I could investigate these glands. On the European HBCV, the glands are larger, more numerous and concave or ear shaped. On the American HBCV, the glands are smaller, narrower and rounded on the top. It turns out that 70% of my HBCV were in fact European.

European High Bush Cranberry leaf

Other differences include:

  • Growth Rate (European has a higher growth rate),
  • Fruit
  • and Leaf Shape.

The European HBCV “leaf lobes are shorter and less pointed, and its fruit are bitter, causing birds to avoid them.” (Invasive Plants of the Upper Midwest, Czarapata, Elizabeth). The fruit on the European HBCV persist longer into the winter as the birds avoid them until there isn’t anything else available.


The birds do feed on the fruit however, as this is believed to be the primary way it has naturalized in wetland edges, riparian areas, and other lowland moist sites in southern Minnesota. It is also prevalent in states eastwards to Maine including Ohio and Pennsylvania. “It [European HBCV] seems to compete more aggressively than the native high bush cranberry and is better able to withstand habitat disturbances. In the area around the Twin Cities and southward, the European species is now more common than the native species.” (Trees and Shrubs of Minnesota, Smith, Welby R.)


European High Bush Cranberry naturalized along a stream (fall color)

After speaking with natural resources professionals, I learned that local native nurseries as well as the DNR were unknowingly propagating the European HBCV from softwood cuttings of wild stock and their own stock which they believed was the American HBCV. They have since checked all of their stock and now only sell the native HBCV.

European HBCV is widely sold at local nurseries. Check the native ones too as they could be unknowingly propagated from the European HBCV.

Here’s some common cultivars sold at nurseries:

European High Bush Cranberry Viburnum
Compact European Cranberry – Viburnum opulus ‘Compactum’
Dwarf European Cranberry Bush – Viburnum opulus ‘Nanum’

American High Bush Cranberry Viburnum
Bailey Compact  – Viburnum trilobum ‘Bailey Compact’
Hahs American Cranberry  – Viburnum trilobum ‘Hahs’ 
Redwing Highbush Cranberry  – Viburnum trilobum ‘JN Select’
Wentworth Highbush Cranberry  – Viburnum trilobum ‘Wentworth’

Distribution of the European High Bush Cranberry

For more photos of the European High Bush Cranberry, visit the website.

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  1. says

    Great info Heather! This has been an issue of confusion for many of us that buy, grow and propagate native shrubs…I have a Wentworth but also 2 “species” that I planted as pollinators – I’m going to check the petioles on those as soon as possible even though they were labelled as “AHBCV” – just in case they were mistakenly propagated from EHBCV stock…
    Ellen Sousa recently posted..When Life Gives You Storm Damage, Make Habitat!

  2. says

    Heather, I planted several native American High Bush Cranberry Viburnums last spring. I am hoping they do OK and return for the spring. How strange that they were unknowingly propagating non-natives…just shows it can happen to the best of us as we think we are planting natives to find we are not…great lesson Heather on the viburnum and once I see my bushes in bloom and with berries I will know if I have a true native or not.
    Donna@ Gardens Eye View recently posted..Exploring Color-Orange on GBBD

  3. says

    Heather, can’t thank you enough for this GREAT info to help us all educate ourselves and others. Much appreciated. Looking forward to spring to be sure the ones I purchased and planted are indeed the American High Bush Cranberry Viburnum and not the European and will be sure to pass along your article to others purchasing for Native Plant Sales.
    Pat Sutton recently posted..Mourning Cloaks in the Garden

  4. says

    Thanks Heather. Clearly useful information to have in my toolbox when I purchase more viburnums for my yard this spring. Unfortunately the (hopefully) unintentional switch out still happens even at the large wetland mitigation site scale. I had something similar happen with a 10 ac wetland mitigation site in CT where we had to have the owner remove all of the European stock after it was placed and replant with verified natives. What a mess it was!
    Cori Rose recently posted..Portrait of the Oak

  5. says

    Another useful characteristic in distinguishing American highbush cranberry (Viburnum opulus var. americanum, V. trilobum) from European highbush cranberry (V. opulus var. opulus) is the pubescence on the leaf surface. On the native the upper leaf surfaces have appressed, thinly distributed hairs, whereas on the non-native the upper leaf surfaces have no hairs. Also, be sure to check the glands on the petioles closely. On more than one occasion, I’ve had someone tell me that the plant they were looking at had both types of glands, or that the plant they were looking at must be the native because it had columnar glands (only for me to excitedly take a look to find out that in fact the glands were the characteristic saucer-shaped glands of the non-native). Here in Indiana, American highbush cranberry is state endangered, and I’ve only seen it in the state on one occasion (and that includes the many times where it has supposedly been planted in restorations or native landscaping projects). In northern Wisconsin, where I also do a little bit of work, American highbush cranberry is abundant. When you’ve seen them both, it’s fairly easy to see the difference. Regarding the glands, those of the non-native will often be turned to the side, so that if you look from the top they will not appear saucer-shaped, but if you look from the side (still at the apex of the gland, however), it will be saucer-shaped. I think that this is a large part of the confusion at native plant nurseries. Also, the nomenclature can cause confusion, as the native and non-native are sometimes both treated as varieties of Viburnum opulus.

  6. says

    First, I must say that I am a little on the slow side (ok…a LOT on the slow side) and had to look up DNR = Dept. of Natural Resources (my brain was thinking don’t start my breathing, but I knew that couldn’t be right ;) ).

    Cranberry is a little out of my zone (ok, WAY out of my zone ;) ), but your point about buying plants, from what should be reliable sources that prove to be non-native is rather scarey. How wonderful that you are savvy enough to have notice and shared this story with us all so we can be alert to similar situations with other plants. Great information!
    Loret recently posted..Making a Comeback

  7. says

    While researching shrubs to plant as “living bird feeders” I saw mentioned on numerous occasions, usually in forums, people saying that birds aren’t eating their Viburnum berries. Perhaps they unknowingly have European varieties. I “think” I planted 7 American Cran. Bush Viburnums in the past year, now I’m worried. Thanks for this info!
    Julie Stone recently posted..Rant of the Month…

  8. Jean Barrell says

    Heather, thanks so much for your article. It has just been brought to my attention that the three “trilobums” that I have are, in fact, the European Cranberry bush. One is close to 20 years old. I’m thinking of removing all of them but weighing the cost of losing mature plants and their cover vs. planting new ones. Is there a large difference between the palatability of the berries for the birds?

    • says

      The berries seem to last longer on the European as I’ve read that some believe they are less palatable. That being said, it is the primary way that the European is being spread from yards to natural areas, so I would highly recommend replacing the ones you have so yours aren’t a source for seed.
      Heather Holm recently posted..New Moth Discovery

  9. Amy says

    Do you have a trusted online source for the American variety? I purchased “American Cranberrybush” from the National Arbor Day Foundation only to find that it is in fact the European variety. I would like to replace it, but am a little concerned about ordering an American only to get a European.

  10. Irina says

    I planted what was sold as the native American species, but birds will not eat the berries. I read that the berries need to overwinter to build up sugars from the freezing weather, and that they are intended to be eaten by early spring migratory birds like cedar waxwings. Still, the birds wouldn’t eat my fruit, and they actually started to rot and stink over the summer. I am disappointed that I planted something that does not appeal to birds. I may start over again with a different shrub.

  11. Nancy says

    Hello Heather,

    After much searching the web for places in Minnesota to buy the High Bush Cranberry I came upon your site. Very interesting about the European vs American!

    I live in rural Red Wing Minnesota. We just bought some new property and it is in dire need of something.

    I so want to plant some of the bushes! Do you know of any nurseries that will mail order? The only one that I can find so far is New York! It is called Miller Nurseries.

    Thank you for any help

  12. says

    Here’s a link to a recent article you might find interesting: “Soft Serve: Autumn’s Unheralded Mast Species”, by Susan Morse of VT – it includes Highbush Cranberry –

    BTW – according to the (IMO) great website GoBotany, created/maintained by the New England Wild Flower Society, a very closely-related species, Squashberry (Viburnum edule) grows in Northern New England – see I believe this plant produces the tastiest (albeit still quite sour) berries – I have made a sauce from it that is more or less identical to a seedless bog cranberry sauce.

    • says

      Russ – thanks, that’s a great article with some nice photos! Unfortunately the dreaded Viburnum Leaf Beetle has reached our corner of Massachusetts and my Cranberry Viburnums were almost completely defoliated last year…unless a miracle happens, I am expecting to lose them, as they already killed my Arrowwood Viburnum (V. dentatum) within just a few years. Unless some native viburnums have the genetic ability to survive the ALB, I fear the worst for the Viburnum genus :( Fingers crossed.


  1. […] it with the invasive linden leaf viburnum.  American Cranberry Bush (Viburnum trilobum) is good but often confused with the invasive European – even by the sellers.  I have noticed in the woods that the viburnums which succumb to viburnum beetles are the ones in […]

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