Know Your Fruits and Veggies™: Cranberry

by Dawn M. Swidorski Food - cranberry

A cousin of the blueberry and one of three fruits native to North America, the cranberry is an evergreen dwarf shrub or trailing vine in the genus Vaccinium subgenus Oxycoccos that sports a bright red and very tart berry. Cranberries can still be found growing wild as a shrub in acidic bogs throughout the cooler parts of the Northern Hemisphere.

The flowers are dark pink and pollinated by domestic honey bees. The fruit is a berry that is larger than the leaves of the plant; it is initially white, but turns a deep red when fully ripe. It is edible, with an acidic taste that can overwhelm its sweetness.

The name cranberry is a modernization of the European settlers name for the fruit, “crane berry”, so called because the small, pink blossoms that appear in the spring resemble the head and bill of a Sandhill crane which frequented the bogs. They are sometimes also called “bounce berries” because ripe cranberries will bounce if dropped. In Canada they are called moss berries.

Cranberries are a unique fruit that require very special conditions to survive: an acid peat soil, an adequate fresh water supply, sand and an 8 month growing season that includes a dormancy period in the winter months that provides extended chilling period, necessary to mature fruiting buds. Normally, growers do not have to replant since an undamaged cranberry vine will survive indefinitely. Some vines in Massachusetts are reported to be more than 150 years old!

Contrary to popular belief, cultivated cranberries do not grow in water. Instead, they grow on vines in impermeable beds layered with sand, peat, gravel and clay. The beds or bogs are flooded at harvest time to facilitate picking.

Native Americans used cranberries which they called Sassamanash in a variety of ways including as an import food source, especially for pemmican a mixture of nuts, dried cranberries and or blueberries and animal fat. Native Americans also enjoyed cranberries cooked and sweetened with honey or maple syrup-a cranberry sauce type recipe that was likely served as a treat. They probably introduced cranberries to starving European settlers who later incorporated the berries into Thanksgiving feasts a tradition which survives today.

Cranberries were also used for a variety of medicines and for the treatment of wounds, since the astringent tannins contract tissues and help stop bleeding. American whalers and sailors carried cranberries shipboard to prevent scurvy.

Also an excellent red fabric dye, European settlers adopted the Native American’s many uses for cranberries and used them as a valuable bartering tool.

Around 1816, Captain Henry Hall of Massachusetts became the first to successfully cultivate cranberries. By the 1820s cranberries were being exported to Europe. Cranberry cultivation soon spread not only across New England and the northern U.S. through Wisconsin and Washington and Oregon. By 1871, the first association of cranberry growers in the United States had formed.

In a strange side note, cranberries arrived in Holland as survivors of a shipwreck. An American ship sank along the Dutch coast, its cargo of barrels of cranberries, washed ashore on the island of Terschelling; some of the berries took root, and cranberries have been cultivated there ever since.

Today cranberries are a major commercial crop in North America and Canada though Massachusetts produces 50% of the crop. Most cranberries are processed into products such as juice, sauce, and sweetened dried cranberries, with the remainder sold fresh to consumers.

Since the early 21st century, there has been a rapidly growing recognition of cranberries for their nutrient content and antioxidant qualities, giving them commercial status as a “super fruit”

Cranberries are most often as a sauce or jelly usually for Thanksgiving dinner and if you’ve only ever eaten the canned kind it’s time to take a step into the wild side and explore them fresh. The berry is also used in baking muffins and scones but, unlike most other berries, it is generally considered too tart to be eaten raw.

Cranberry wine is a well known product in some of the cranberry-growing regions of the United States made from whole cranberries, cranberry juice or cranberry juice concentrate.

Cranberries aren’t just for Thanksgiving!

Whenever fresh cranberries are in season I stock up. They keep fresh in the refrigerator for a couple of months and when frozen for up to two years — though mine never last that long.

The challenge to working with raw cranberries is to find ways to either take advantage of, or balance their tartness.

  • Combine fresh cranberries with sweeter fruits such as oranges, apples, pineapple or pears.
  • Add a little fruit juice, honey or maple syrup to chopped fresh cranberries.
  • Replace the vinegar or lemon with cranberries when dressing your green salads. Simply toss the greens with a little olive oil then add a handful of raw cranberries for color and zest.
  • Combine equal parts of unsweetened cranberry juice, your favorite fruit juice (though some combination’s are tastier than others – citrus not so good) and sparkling water for a refreshing beverage.
  • Instead of raisins add dried cranberries to your favorite recipes for rice pudding, quick breads or muffins
  • Sprinkle a handful of dried cranberries into your bowl of hot or cold cereal.
  • Mix dried cranberries with roasted and lightly salted nuts for a delicious snack.

Plus we’ve included a recipe courtesy of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association.

Cranberry Couscous

One final note: In Southeastern Massachusetts are more than 14,000 acres of cranberry bogs nestled among the towns and villages.The Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association has created a Cranberry Harvest Trail Guide if you would like to experience a cranberry harvest first hand. Download the PDF that includes a map and list of participating farms.

Obviously they can’t predict when the harvest is going to place though sometime in September or October is most likely.

Massachusetts cranberry growers have built a proud tradition as stewards of the land, protecting the state’s fragile resources and an important part of our natural heritage.