A history of cranberries

“America doesn’t have much in the way of native fruits grown at any commercial scale”

Gwynn Guilford, in Quarz

Guilford is right, but the notable exception, which she too, acknowledges, is the cranberry which, thanks to many years’ creative marketing (funded largely by Ocean Spray, the cranberry’s principal advocate) now has an enthusiastic global fan club.

The cranberry has had other notable advocates. In 1864 the Civil War general, Ulysses S Grant served cranberry sauce at a Thanksgiving feast for troops.

More recently, cranberries have reinvented themselves, in dried and juice forms, as a healthy snack or a natural cure for urinary infection.

Two main types of cranberry

Just to be clear, north America isn’t the only place where cranberries are native.

In northern Europe, Asia and America there is the Vaccinium Oxycoccus, often referred to in Britain as the mossberry, or fenberry as it likes to grow around fens. It also does well in the low-lying Netherlands.

But the big-is-beautiful, juice-busting variety, the Vaccinium Macrocarpon, is, indeed, native to north America, and it’s the variety with the worldwide reputation.

Both types of cranberry belong to the same plant family as heather, rhododendrons, and blueberries.

America is also home to a third type of cranberry – small and similar to Vaccinium Oxycoccus.

A history of cranberries
Vaccinium Macrocarpon

The start of it all

It was certainly first enjoyed by the Narragansett Indians, an Algonquian tribe living in Rhode Island, as well as the Wampanoag, although other tribes must also have gathered these enticing, rosy berries. The native Americans didn’t just eat the berries, they used them medicinally (to soothe a fever or bring down a swelling), for dye,  and in their religious ceremonies (for some tribes the cranberry was a symbol of peace). They made pemmican, a convenient, travelling source of food and energy which was a mix of cranberries, and the dried flesh and the fat of deer.

They introduced it to the new colonists, including some of Dutch and German origin, who noticed that the developing flower looked a bit like the head and neck of a crane and so christened it the kraanbere. The settlers also enjoyed eating cranberries, and they also found they helped sailors fight scurvy. Fur traders found the Indians’ pemmican very handy.

history of the cranberry
Native Americans introduced it to the settlers.

They also used the berries for dye. In 1633, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, there is an account of Mary Ring’s husband auctioning her cranberry-dyed petticoat for 16 shillings. History doesn’t relate whether or not she was happy with the sale.

Who was the first to cultivate the cranberry?

The first person to cultivate the cranberry was Sir Joseph Banks*, a man who had been the official botanist on many far-flung (Australia, America, both north and south…) expeditions. Towards the twilight of his career, around 1806, he was sent some cranberry seeds which he grew at Spring Grove, his house in Isleworth, in England. It was on this estate that, according to Wikipedia, Banks “created a renowned botanical masterpiece on the estate, achieved primarily with many of the great variety of foreign plants he had collected on his extensive travels around the world.”

first cultivated cranberries
Sir Joseph Banks’ house in Isleworth where cranberries were first cultivated.

The challenges of growing cranberries commercially

However, growing cranberries commercially presented many challenges (which is why Sir Joseph Banks didn’t attempt it). The cranberry’s season at six weeks (in September and October) is short. They are picky about where they grow: they need lots of fresh water, a sandy topsoil, and a chilly dormancy period in which to cook up next season’s crop. And they are hard work to harvest.

harvesting cranberries
The back-breaking, hands-and-knees work of picking cranberries by hand

Nevertheless, there was motivation to overcome all these problems because there was a burgeoning market for them. There was growing demand in cities such as New York and Boston, where they were enjoyed by the population and also shipped on to Europe. And then there was the turning point, the American hero, Ulysses S Grant’s very public seal of approval.

Who were the first to cultivate the cranberry commercially?

The first known commercial cranberry bed was planted in 1816 in Dennis, Massachusetts, by Henry Hall. He observed that vines growing near dunes, and therefore in soil topped by a layer of sand, grew faster. And today’s growers still, every three to five years, spread a few inches of sand on the icy beds – it also helps control both weed and insects – the first record of this practice was in 1838. The beds have moved from the traditional wetlands to uplands where the water table is close to the surface.

The clay prevents goodness from leaching into ground water. The dykes help to keep the water in during harvesting, but also provide a surface for harvesting machinery so that the cranberry vines aren’t damaged.

structure of a cranberry bog
The cranberry plants grow in vines, much like strawberries; and they are propagated by bees.

But the first person to really successfully pick up the gauntlet presented by the cranberry challenges was Marcus L Urann. Although originally a lawyer, he had the soul of an entrepreneur, and when he bought a cranberry bog, his life changed.

marcus urann
Marcus Urann – a natural-born entrepreneur

Solving the harvesting problem by using ‘wet’ harvesting

He solved the harvesting problem by using ‘wet’ harvesting. This involved flooding the cranberry bog so that the berries are easy to loosen, and would bob on the surface (every cranberry naturally has four tiny air pockets), easily skimmable. The traditional ‘dry’ approach was the labour-intensive, back-breaking hand-picked approach. The ‘wet’ approach took a fourteenth of the time taken by the ‘dry’ approach. Today both methods are mechanised, with the wet method producing fruit for sauce and juice; and the dry (5-10% of the total crop) for whole fruit, sold fresh.

To see a fascinating display of all kinds of tools used for harvesting cranberries, as well as other intriguing exhibits, visit the Harwich Brooks Academy Museum.

Extending the season to make cranberries available year-round

Then, in 1912, Urann solved the short season problem at a stroke by tinning the fruit. Since then other ways of enabling year-round cranberry consumption have also been introduced: cranberries are dried, frozen and juiced.

Increasing profitability by founding a co-operative

Urann went on to increase the profitability of the whole enterprise by forming a co-operative to reduce the competition. In 1957 the co-operative changed its name to Ocean Spray.

history of cranberries
A modern cranberry bog

Where are most cranberries grown today?

Today most (about 98%) cranberries are grown in the US, Canada and Chile. The Canadian and Chilean crops are about a quarter of the US crop.

Are cranberries really healthy?

The native Americans used cranberries medicinally, and now cranberries are still recognised for health benefits. They contain Vitamin C and many antioxidants (which help to reduce inflammation).

However, more research is required to show evidence with regard to specific conditions.

Bear in mind that natural cranberries are sour. Anything (dried cranberries, and sauce of course) which tastes palatable will have added sugar, or the sugars within the fruit concentrated.

The future for cranberries

Natural cranberries are sour, but at the University of Wisconsin-Madison they are developing an experimental variety, the ‘Sweetie’ which doesn’t need added sugar.

The season for fresh cranberries

Fresh cranberries are available from September to November.

*Robert Cox, Massachusetts Cranberry Culture: a history from bog to table

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