University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science

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Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont
Turkey without cranberry sauce? For most Americans that's as unthinkable as Thanksgiving without turkey! In fact, even the Pilgrims enjoyed this versatile perennial fruit with their first Thanksgiving meal.

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.

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 Thanksgiving.

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.

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.  One approach would be to make a “heath bed” for cranberries and other relatives of the heath family—lingonberries, lowbush blueberries, even rhododendrons.  Mix roughly equal parts of peat moss and potting soil, keep the bed acidic with pelletized sulfur (amounts according to a soil test or soil test kit you can purchase inexpensively), and feed lightly with soybean meal.  Bogs aren’t really needed for home growing, just keep plants well-watered.

Grown in full sun, cranberries will make an attractive and low maintenance evergreen groundcover under a foot high and 2 to 3 feet wide.

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