One of three of North America’s native, commercially grown fruits, the cranberry has long been praised for its pungent taste and incredible versatility. Used in dishes and food dyes since the earliest days of the Native Americans, the cranberry is also a proven natural healing agent. In addition to its high antioxidant value, cranberries have been shown to promote urinary tract health by preventing certain pathogenic bacteria from sticking to key cells in our body. They may even reduce oxidation of LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol.
The cranberry (or “craneberry”) derives its name from the small, pink blossoms that appear on the plant in the spring resembling the head and bill of a Sandhill crane. Upon arrival in the New World, European settlers discovered that the fruit was an effective bartering tool and extremely efficient in combating scurvy. Captain Henry Hall was the first to successfully cultivate the cranberry in 1816. The first association of cranberry growers in the U.S. formed in 1871.
Cranberries develop under extremely unique conditions. They are native wetland plants that require adequate fresh water and grow in beds — more commonly called bogs — that are layered with sand, peat, gravel and clay. Originally formed by glaciers, these bogs slow the growth of weeds and insects, and allow the cranberry to thrive in a rich environment of purified water and organic matter.
Cranberries develop from a bud set on low-lying vines, like strawberries, in a long growing season that extends from April to November. Since an undamaged cranberry vine can survive indefinitely, growers do not replant annually. Some vines on Cape Cod are known to be more than 150 years old and are still bearing fruit, according to the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association.
In the colder months before the season begins, cranberry bogs are flooded to protect the vines and buds from winter injury. The water is removed in mid-March. Cranberries require up to one inch of water per week during the growing season, so in the drier summer months, water is often applied through a sprinkler system. Growers rely on one to two beehives per acre of bog during the June and July blooming period for pollination.
Harvest occurs once a year, from about mid-September through early November. Dry harvesting for fresh fruit berries involves raking berries off the vines with machines into boxes or bags. Wet harvesting for juices and sauces is accomplished with water reels. These “egg-beaters” stir up the water and dislodge the cranberries from their vines, causing them to float up to the water’s surface. More than 85 percent of cranberries are wet harvested.