Just in time for Thanksgiving, let’s talk about cranberries


Thanksgiving is here, and planning is underway for the festive meal traditionally shared with family and friends.

Although subject to significant variation, the menu invariably includes cranberry sauce. Recipes for cranberry sauce vary greatly, but all include a large amount of sugar because cranberries are tart. Very tart.

Lest you think I am exaggerating their sourness, consider that each ounce of cranberry juice includes 1 teaspoon of sugar, and a 12-ounce bottle of cranberry juice has two more teaspoons of sugar than a can of regular Coke.

Cranberries are a native fruit used extensively by Native Americans across the continent as food, medicine and a dye, so it is probable that cranberries were introduced early to the American colonists by their tribal contacts — possibly the Narragansetts, who were members of the larger Algonquin nation.

In addition, cranberries are one of only three Native American fruits that are grown commercially. The other two are blueberries and Concord grapes. The latter is actually a cultivar of Vitis labrusca, the fox grape, developed by Ephraim Wales Bull in 1849 in Concord, Massachusetts.

Eastern tribes that used cranberries include Iroquois and Chippewa. Western tribes include the Hesquiat of Vancouver and the Clallam people of western Washington. In the northern United States, the Cree living both westward from Lake Superior and on the Canadian plains of southern Manitoba and Alberta as well as the forested areas north and east, used them.

There are many ethnographic records of the Inuit of Canada using them. One recipe is pemmican, pounded dried meat mixed with fat and some fruit. It would keep for months in storage pouches, and was a high-energy trail food.

Cranberries are members of the Ericaceae, making them relatives of the heaths  (genus Erica), which are endemic to South Africa and native to other parts of Africa, Madagascar, the Mediterranean and Europe. The heather relatives (genus Calluna) are native to Europe, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and the Azores.

Cranberries are a member of genus Vaccinium found mostly in the cooler areas of the Northern Hemisphere, those continental areas north of the equator, although there are several tropical Vaccinium species.

Ericaceae are characterized by their ability to tolerate acidic, infertile soils through their symbiotic relationship with a fungal group specific to the Ericaceae — the Ericoid mycorrhiza. The fungi increase the absorption of water and nutrients for the plants as well as breaking down complex organic molecules while the plants provide carbohydrates to the fungi.

Mycorrhizal fungi are divided into seven distinct groups, and approximately 90 percent of vascular land plants grow in some relationship with their unique mycorrhizal partners.

Other Vaccinium relatives used by consumers include blueberries (the most important blueberry species is Vaccinium corymbosum), bilberries (Vaccinium myrtillus L.), lingonberries (Vaccinium vitis-idea) and huckleberries (red huckleberries are Vaccinium parvifolium, the black ones are V. membranaceum and the blue ones are V. deliciosum).

The etymology of the genus name Vaccinium is unclear. It appears to be derived from the Latin where it was the name of a plant possibly through the Latin word bacca meaning a berry. It should not be confused with the word vaccinum, “pertaining to cows.”

Ocean Spray cranberry commercials have familiarized us to the idea of a cranberry bog. While there are many different kinds of bogs, most of them refer to a marshy environment with an acidic soil.

They are largely found in colder, temperate zones, and were created by glaciers more than 10,000 years ago when “kettle holes” lined with impermeable clay were filled with rocks moved by glaciers.

Sand eventually blew into these areas, and any plants growing there partially rotted down into acidic peat. These bogs types are also the home of carnivorous plants such as the pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea), the insect-eating habit of which solves the problem of low nutrients in bog environments.

During the growing season, the cranberry is a low-growing vine rooted in a wet soil.

Initially cranberries were dry harvested, first by hand and later by using a machine resembling the old-fashioned lawnmower. As the machine moved through the growing area, the blades knocked the berries off the vines into a hopper. These berries are of the highest quality and are sold fresh in supermarkets for cooking and baking.

Wet harvesting — introduced in the 1960s — begins with flooding the fields the night before with up to 18 inches of water. Then larger, motorized machines — nicknamed “egg beaters” — are driven through the fields, stirring up the water and loosening the berries from the vines that they float to the top because the fruit has pockets of air within it. Then they are corralled on the surface of the water and siphoned off.

Cranberries have a long association with Thanksgiving, and add festive color to the table!


Have a thought or comment for Sura Jeselsohn? Email her at greenscenesura@gmail.com.