November 18, 2012

In praise of cranberries

Richard Gast, Cornell Ag Connection

---- — “The Indians and English use them much, boyling them with Sugar for Sauce to eat with their Meat, and it is a delicious sauce.” — from New-England Rarities Discovered, by John Josselyn; 1672.

Other than as a side dish, essentially a condiment to complement the turkey at the Thanksgiving dinner table, it seems to me Americans pay very little attention to cranberries, which is a real shame, considering the versatility, the health benefits and the history. They are loaded with vitamin C, keep wonderfully when frozen and can be used in breads, soups, teas, salads, desserts, stuffing and relishes.

Cranberries are certainly unique. They are a wetland fruit that grows on trailing vines, somewhat like strawberries. Natural cranberry beds are comprised of acid peat soil, sand and fresh water. A winter dormancy period is required to mature fruiting buds.

No one can say for certain whether or not cranberries were a part of the first Thanksgiving supper in Plymouth, but there is a strong likelihood that they were. The Pilgrims would have learned about them from the Native Americans, including the Cape Cod Pequots, who called them ‘ibimi (bitter berry) and used them as a staple; eating them fresh, ground, mashed, sweetened with maple sugar, baked into bread made with cornmeal and made into a sauce.

They also used cranberries to make “pemmican,” a winter mainstay made from berries, dried game meat (usually venison) and melted fat. Although the Indians used cranberry juice as a dye, there is debate about whether or not they actually drank cranberry juice. Raw cranberry juice is quite bitter and if it were served as a drink it is very likely that maple sugar and/or other juices would have been added, or it may have been diluted with water and a bit of maple sugar or honey.

There are several theories about how the European settlers came to call the little crimson fruits cranberries. The most universally accepted is that the Pilgrims actually referred to them as crane-berries, either because the blossoms resembled the heads, necks and bills of English cranes before the flowers open, or because the berries were a favorite food of sandhill cranes. Cranberry is derived from that original name.

Cranberries are one of only three commercially grown fruits native to North America (The other two are blueberries and concord grapes.) Massachusetts produces about 40 percent of the nation’s cranberries. They are that state’s number one agricultural commodity crop, harvested on approximately 15,000 acres of cranberry bogs. Another 35,000 or so acres are cultivated on bogs located in Delaware, Maine, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington and Wisconsin. Cranberries are also grown in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island and Quebec.

The first documented successful cultivation occurred sometime between 1810 and 1816, when Captain Henry Hall, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, began transplanting cranberry vines, fencing them in (to keep cattle out) and spreading sand on them (to simulate the natural windblown sand that occurred in particularly productive natural bogs) at his Cape Cod home. Hall soon began shipping his cultivated berries to Boston and New York City. Eventually others began cultivating their own cranberries and, in 1871, the first association of American cranberry growers was formed.

Cranberries shipped to Europe from Boston were packed in water in barrels, 100 pounds of berries per barrel. A number of the barrels were designated for use by the sailors, who ate them medicinally to prevent scurvy. The 100-pound barrel, a standard measure unique to cranberries, is still used today. In 1871 a barrel of cranberries cost about 60 cents.

Cranberries are now being grown commercially in northern New York. In recent years, I’ve had the opportunity to observe some work undertaken by an experienced Massachusetts cranberry grower at a site near Bombay in northwestern Franklin County, who has told me that he believes that conditions in this remote dairy-farming region may, in fact, be better for growing cranberries than those on his cranberry farm in Cape Cod.

Establishing a cranberry farm for commercial production is a complicated, labor-intensive process. I find what he is doing truly remarkable. Essentially, he has reclaimed a large tract of abandoned farmland by creating several man-made, five-to-seven-acre sandy bogs that continue to produce an impressive crop of cranberries year after year. He currently has more than 60 acres in production and, after years of observation and learning, a neighboring agricultural entrepreneur has also begun producing cranberries on reclaimed farmland.

Cranberry vines can produce berries for a very long time. Among the cultivated cranberry plantings in the United States, there are some that were planted more than a century ago with plants that are still producing berries.

It is possible to grow cranberries a home garden. Want to know more? Contact me and I’ll be happy to send you copies of ‘‘How to Plant a Cranberry Garden’’ and the ‘‘Homeowners’ Guide to Cranberry Vine Propagation.’’ Both fact sheets are from the University of Massachusetts Cranberry Experiment Station in East Wareham, Mass.

Richard L. Gast, Extension program educator II, Horticulture, Natural Resources, Energy, agriculture programs assistant, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County, 355 West Main St., Suite 150, Malone, 12953. Call 483-7403, fax 483-6214 or email