Vaccinium vitis-idaea (Cowberry [US] [UK, Ireland] or Lingonberry [North America]; see below for other names) is a small evergreen shrub in the flowering plant family Ericaceae that bears edible fruit. It is native to boreal forest and Arctic tundra throughout the Northern Hemisphere from Eurasia to North America. It is seldom cultivated, but fruit is commonly collected in the wild.
Vaccinium vitis-idaea grows from 10 to 40 cm (4 to 16 in) in height and spreads by underground rhizomes to form dense clonal colonies. The stems are light brown. The leaves are oval, 5–30 mm (0.2–1.2 in) long, with an smooth margin and often 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.
The fruit is a red berry 6–10 mm (0.2–0.4 in) across, with an acidic taste, ripening in late summer to autumn.
There are two regional varieties or subspecies of Vaccinium vitis-idaea, one in Eurasia and one in North America, differing in leaf size:
- 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.
Plants keep their leaves all winter even in the coldest years, unusually for a broad-leaved plant, though in their natural habitat they are usually protected from severe cold by snow cover. It is extremely hardy, tolerating -40 °C (-40 °F) or lower, but grows poorly where summers are hot. It prefers some shade (as from a forest canopy) and constantly moist, acidic soil. Nutrient-poor soils are tolerated but not alkaline soils.
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