Cranberries for Thanksgiving
By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor,
University of Vermont
Turkey without cranberry sauce? For most New Englanders that's as
unthinkable as Thanksgiving without turkey! In fact, even the Pilgrims enjoyed
this versatile perennial fruit with their first Thanksgiving meal.
The Bitter Berry
The cranberry was a staple in the diet of Native Americans who called it the
"bitter berry." They introduced this food to the early settlers and taught them
how to make "pemmican" by pounding the cranberries together with dried meat
and fat. The settlers also made meat sauces with cranberries and mixed them
with maple sap to make a sweet breakfast syrup.
Grown in Open Bogs & Marshes
The cranberry is a native American wetland plant that is grown in open bogs
and marshes from Newfoundland to western Ontario and as far south as
Virginia and Arkansas. Although stems (actually they are vines) are rather
sensitive to cold, they’ll withstand such submersion well. The vine-like plant
grows from six inches to two feet long and has small, evergreen leaves and
pinkish flowers. The berries are harvested in October, just in time for
Massachusetts is the leading producer (with about half of the total U.S. crop),
followed by Wisconsin and New Jersey. In Canada, there is limited production
in Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes, and British Columbia. Production of
cranberries requires a large amount of water -- the equivalent of about 200
inches of rainfall a year for irrigation, frost protection, harvest, pest control, and
winter protection. Soil pH needs to be between 4.0 and 5.0 because cranberries
require low pH for adequate nutrient intake. In Massachusetts, the Cape Cod
area is especially suited for commercial cranberry production.
A "Wet Harvested" Crop
About 90 percent of the cranberries are wet harvested. Bogs are flooded just
prior to harvest, then a floating harvester moves through the bog to separate the
berries from the vine. The hollow fruit rises to the surface where it is collected
and corralled in a section of the bog. The fruit is moved from the bog to the
waiting trucks by elevator, then taken away for processing. Fruit that is
harvested by this method is processed into juice, sauce, and other cranberry
products. The rest of the crop is dry harvested with a picking machine, which
resembles a large lawn mower. Although this method is less efficient, growers
receive a higher price for dry harvested fruit. These cranberries usually are
packaged and sold as fresh whole berries in grocery stores.
Berries can be stored in their original container in the refrigerator for up to a
week, or washed and frozen in a freezer container for later use. They do not
need to be thawed before using them in a recipe. In addition to the traditional
jelly or sauce, cranberries can be used for pies, muffins, quick breads, puddings,
and sherbets. Cranberry juice, both regular and sugar-free, has become a
popular drink in recent years, especially in combination with other juices.
If you want to try growing some at home, you’ll need a cool moist soil with
plenty of organic matter such as peat moss. Grown in full sun, cranberries will
make an attractive and low maintenance evergreen ground cover under a foot
high and 2 to 3 feet wide.