The Vaccinium vitis-idaea – often called lingonberry also called cowberry, foxberry, mountain cranberry, red whortleberry, lowbush cranberry, partridgeberry (in Newfoundland and Cape Breton), and redberry (in Labrador) – is a small evergreen shrub in the flowering plant family Ericaceae that bears edible fruit.
It is seldom cultivated, but the fruits are commonly collected in the wild. The native habitat is the circumboreal forests of northern Eurasia and North America, extending from temperate into subarctic climates.
Lingonberry shrubs of both varieties are typically 10–40 cm in height and have a compact habit. They prefer some shade (as from a forest canopy) and constantly moist, acidic soil. Nutrient-poor soils are tolerated but not alkaline soils. They are extremely hardy, tolerating −40 °C or lower, but grow poorly where summers are hot.
The plant is only semi-woody but keeps its leaves all winter even in the coldest years, unusual for a broadleaf plant, though they are usually protected from severe cold by snow cover. The plant spreads by underground rhizomes. The bell-shaped white flowers are produced in the early summer. The fruit, actually a false berry, is red and acidic, ripening in late summer to autumn.
The species resembles the related and similar cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccus, V. microcarpum and V. macrocarpon), differing mainly in having white (not pink) flowers, with the petals partially enclosing the stamens and stigma (the petals are reflexed backwards in cranberries), and rounder, less pear-shaped berries. Other related plants in the genus Vaccinium include blueberries, bilberries, and huckleberries.
Lingonberries collected in the wild are a popular fruit in northern, central and eastern Europe, notably in Finland, Austria, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Russia, and 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 almost always cooked and sweetened before eating in the form of lingonberry jam, compote, juice, or syrup. The raw fruits are also frequently simply mashed with sugar, which preserves most of their nutrients and flavor and even enables storing them at room temperature (in closed but not necessarily sealed containers). Lingonberries served this way or as compote often accompany game meats and liver dishes. In Sweden and Norway, reindeer and deer steak is traditionally served with gravy and lingonberry sauce. Lingonberry preserve is commonly eaten with meatballs and potatoes in Sweden and Norway. In Sweden and Russia, when sugar was still a luxury item, lingonberries were usually preserved simply by putting them whole into bottles of water. This was known as vattlingon (watered lingonberries), and 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 Poland, lingonberries are often mixed with pears to create a sauce served with poultry or game. Lingonberries can also be used to replace red currants when creating Cumberland sauce to give it a more sophisticated taste.
Lingonberries are also popular as a wild picked fruit in North America in Newfoundland and Labrador, where they are locally known as partridgeberries. In this region they are also incorporated into jams, syrups, and baked goods.
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. Lingonberries are used to make Lillehammer berry liqueur.
Lingonberries are an important food for bears and foxes. Caterpillars of the Coleophoridae case-bearer moths Coleophora glitzella, Coleophora idaeella and Coleophora vitisella are not known to eat anything but lingonberry leaves.
Lingonberries are used in herbal medicine. They were a major component in keeping people healthy in Sweden through the long winters, when fresh vegetables were not available. A coarse porridge with fat salt pork and lingonberry preserve was a classic meal of the winter, and a large crock of the berries preserved with sugar would be found in every larder. Owing to their high content of benzoic acid, they have the additional virtue of being able to be made into preserves without boiling.