Rose White, Rose Red: A Tribute to Highbush Cranberry

Story and Photos by Paula Kaiman Guelder Rose in springtime wears blossoms white as snow. Guelder Rose in wintertime bears scarlet fruit aglow!

All year round the beautiful Guelder Rose---more commonly known as Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum opulus, var. americanum or var. trilobum)---with it's maple-like, three lobed leaves, is a joy for the rural ambler. The brilliant, juicy fruit may be bitter and acidic to the tongue but, come the hibernal season, no sight is more rosy or sweet. Hanging in generous clusters, they enliven the paper white landscape with a lifeblood that pulses and sings: "Guelder Rose in wintertime bears scarlet fruit aglow!"


In my wild garden, not only the shrubbery sings---although it may sometimes appear so! Along with other bird folk, a pair of Gray Catbirds nests in the tangled thicket. Their genus, Dumetella, refers to the species' habit of singing when hidden in undergrowth, obscured from view by foliage. Each year I search in vain to spy a nest, but Guelder Rose in summertime helps keep their cover well. Only her winter branches will reveal the secret source of all that feathered meowing.

As winter draws to a close, if sweeter foods are unavailable, Cedar Waxwings may claim the untouched drupes. I like to watch them fluttering in polite, social groups as they share the season's harvest with their crested companions. Sometimes, they feed their brethren---passing berries beak to beak, all along the twig---so that each bird gets a chance to eat.

Often though, the fruit remains on the shrub until spring. And then the wheel turns again, when "Guelder Rose in springtime wears blossoms white as snow." The spangled discs of her vernal cloak carry winter's white memory of all that has passed---while reminding one to journey forward, to floridly embrace the bounty yet to come. And, of course, to sing!


Author's Note:

In September, 2013, I participated in a weekend intensive with Ecuadorian ethnobotanist and devoted healer, Rocio Alarcon, at Partner Earth Education Center. Rocio taught us many things, but most beloved to me, was the healing art of cleansing known as "limpia" in Rocio's native tongue. Simple, yet profound, limpias are conducted with fresh, fragrant plants.

As autumn drew to a close, I felt certain that my first winter limpia would be marked by the warmth of Balsam. Instead, I was called to Highbush---the slightly odiferous, yet splendid, Guelder Rose. Odiferous...not fragrant. I recalled having once read, that much like that of Elder (Sambucus spp.), the slightly putrid scent has historically been associated with cultural taboos involving sex, death, and decay. Undeterred, I conducted my cranberry cleansing on a rare, warm afternoon, intent on a personal need. When the ritual was complete, I placed a berry in my mouth, then closed my eyes and felt the subtle stirring of a secret inner bird. In time, it rose within me---like a phoenix---from the hollows of my ill.

Two days later, ensconsed again indoors, I became intensely aware of the pungent aroma of Guelder. It attended me all throughout that day. Rather than unpleasant, I found it most affirming and alive. As winter progressed, the Guelder Rose became my staunch companion. Remaining by my side in spirit, she later presented thrice---each time in physical form---at the decline, death, and interment of my dearest, elder father...a soft-spoken man who loved to sing, and was partial to brilliant red.

Soon after I learned that, in some mythological versions, rather than death by fire, the phoenix simply dies then decomposes before being born again---symbolic of renewal, as well as the sun, time, the afterlife, transmigration of the soul, and "the exceptional man."

There is so much more I could say, but will conclude with this: Cranberry Spirit sings to all my senses. She enfolds me in her light. Each time I think of her, my heart bursts berry-red! Like the exceptional man I knew---the one I still hold near---how can I do anything but love her?

Like a row of Cedar Waxwings passing berries beak to beak, through the sharing touch of story may the Guelder softly speak.