Cranberries. Were they really on the menu of that first Thanksgiving feast? Historians may still speculate, but this tart berry from the northernmost climes has become pure Americana.
While ‘cranberries’ may first conjure Irish rock band imagery for millennials, this North American native is iconographic for holiday festivities for the rest of us. Roast turkey sans cranberry sauce is unthinkable. The traditional fowl has earned its rightful casting, but the brilliant red, and contrasting flavor of this seasonal berry lends the celebratory panache. Whether your taste favors a homemade relish from fresh berries, or Ocean Spray, it just has to be there.
As I recently pondered my holiday menu, it occurred to me that I had learned little of this fruit-bearing evergreen beyond my favorite holiday recipes. What’s more, I hadn’t ever seen the cranberry plant offered from my suppliers in my years as a nursery owner.
Always delighted for an opportunity to research all things botanical, I at once turned my efforts to learning more about this berry I have enjoyed for a lifetime… and I’m glad I did.
Of all the fruits grown in North America the cranberry is one of the true native plants. The cranberry was a primary participant in the culture of the indigenous North American tribes. Cranberry grew in what is now known as Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Quebec to the western reaches of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.
Regional tribes used cranberries as food, dyes for textiles and medicines. The medicinal value of these remarkable berries was recognized as an effective anti-inflammatory, laxative, blood purifier and used for the treatment of fevers, stomach cramps, child-birth related issues and a paste for the treatment of arrow wounds.
Cranberry along with other native crops would become survival essentials for the first European settlers and, of course, become synonymous with Thanksgiving.
Cranberries, a long-lived perennial, grow on low growing vines in sunken beds called bogs. These extremely wet growing areas provide rich, well-drained soil with a bit of sand to enhance drainage capabilities.
Naturally tart, they take 16 months to grow and ripen with mature fruiting stems growing simultaneously with the next season’s crop. Preferring protection from frost, the home gardener is advised to mulch their cranberry plants heavily for the winter. Commercial grows are always located near a source of abundant fresh water, so fields can be flooded during the winter to provide winter protection from harsh, freezing temperatures.
So how did this inconspicuous berry become a thriving multimillion-dollar industry that has lasted over 250 years? It began with the advent of the European settler. Despite the cranberry being a new food to the European immigrant, its culinary use became quickly widespread. As a side dish accompanying meat/wild game this tart accouterment developed into a staple to the fledgling nation.
The 19th century launched the commencement of American farmers commercially growing cranberries. Which brings me to my original question: why is there such a widely spread commercial industry, and very little attention to sell to the home gardener?
For one thing, it takes three years for a newly planted cranberry start to begin bearing fruit. Secondly, if one season is extremely bountiful the plant may then take another two years until it again bears fruit.
Lastly, soil conditions are extremely important, not to mention the need for consistent fertilization and an abundance of clean water; all potentially daunting to the average grower. With the abundance of commercially available cranberries it’s understandable why most are content to leave this crop in more capable hands.
I was delighted to learn that our northern neighbor, Bandon, Oregon is the cranberry capital of the West. This boggy, coastal land provides a perfect growing environment for cranberries. Late September, prior to October harvest, the town celebrates, with a three-day festival that extols all things cranberry. Commencing with a Blessing of the Harvest, the following days are filled with games, cranberry cooking and eating contests, dancing and cycling.
Bandon is also home to the Coquille Indian tribe and the entire area was once tribal land. Prior to the massive influx of the European settlers, the Coquille people lived and practiced an environmentally renewable way of life and the cranberry was an integral part of their heritage.
Today, the tribe is one of the world’s largest suppliers of organic cranberries. Practicing sustainable farming like their ancestors before them, you can find their products sold under the name of Coquille Cranberries.
In recent years, with the explosion of the organic food industry and greater health consciousness among the general population, cranberries have found a distinctive new role. Similar to the practice of the indigenous who added cranberries to their Pemmican (a high density traveling food for the natives) this fruit is once again recognized as a densely nutritious food source.
Today cranberries are used in cosmetics, hair products, skin care, culinary use, and offer an amazing assay of health benefits if ingested on a regular basis. Uses and benefits include: 1) cranberry pulp topically applied to treat acne, 2) a rich source of anti-oxidants in longevity promoting supplements, 3) a tea made from the boiled leaves and fruit is an effective dysentery remedy, 4) promotes cardiovascular health, 5)cranberry juice is a traditional urinary tract disinfectant for women with recurrent bladder infections, and 6) weight reduction through improved metabolism and digestive efficiency.
The humble cranberry honors the adage that “good things come in small packages.” Native Americans were more than cognizant of Mother Nature’s ways and her endless gifts to meet our every need. The final, but most important ingredient for your Thanksgiving buffet is gratitude to make this year’s feast the most memorable yet.