BERRY IN THE BOG

Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon)

ERICACEAE, Heath Family

One of the few food crops that is native to New England (Cape Cod) is the cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon), which grows in acid bogs. A bog is a water-logged depression filled with sphagnum moss (peat moss), and is so acid and poor in available nitrogen that typical plants cannot grow there. Many members of the heath family, such as blueberries (Vaccinium spp.) and azaleas (Rhododendron spp.), also grow well in acid, peat soils.

The cranberry plant--called a vine by growers--is a long-lived perennial less than eight inches high with trailing, thin, wiry stems that bear small, opposite, evergreen leaves. Cranberry flowers appear around the Fourth of July; these are white to light pink, downward-pointing, bell-shaped, axillary flowers. The common name cranberry is a modification of the colonial name "crane berry," because the drooping flower looked like the neck and head of the sand crane, which was often seen eating the fruits.

The red, globular cranberry fruit is a true berry, formed from an inferior ovary. It is a fleshy fruit with a soft, parenchymatous, tart pericarp, which encloses four air-filled locules, each containing a few tiny seeds. Wampanoag Indians of Cape Cod and Narragansett Indians of southern Massachusetts picked cranberries each year in the early fall from wild plants in the bogs and marshes, and they called these sassamanesh. Fruits were dried or stored fresh for the winter food supply. Dried cranberries were traded widely and used as a nourishing addition to dried meat and deer fat ("pemmican"). Native Americans also used cranberries to dye fabric, and the tart, unripe fruits made a common poultice and other medicines.

As you might expect, the lore of cranberry was presented to the early European visitors to eastern North America, and the pilgrims had cranberries on the 1621 Thanksgiving table along with squash, corn bread, succotash (corn, beans, and animal fat), and wild turkey or lobster (accounts conflict--anyway, in those days lobster was considered undesirable fare!). [The colonists were probably unaware that a closely related species of Vaccinium called mossberry or moorberry had been eaten in Scandinavia and northern Russia for thousands of years, and a wine was made with wheat, honey, cranberries, and bog myrtle.] The Indians showed the pilgrims how to collect and use these fruits. Thus, cranberries became important in colonial New England, and the women invented sauces and many new recipes. New England sailors sometimes took cranberries onboard ships to prevent scurvy (the British used limes), because, as it turned out, cranberries are rich in vitamin C.

In 1816 successful cultivation of cranberries was achieved by accident. Henry Hall of Barnstable, Cape Cod, removed brush from a native cranberry area in Dennis, and this clearing allowed sand to blow onto the plot and to cover the cranberry plants. Instead of dying, the cranberry plants grew up beautifully through the sand and produced a heavy crop. This was refined into the backbreaking practice of building cranberry bogs by layering sand over the acid, water-logged peat. Once established, these fields produce up to 20,000 pounds of berries per acre per year, year after year without major maintenance. Cranberries require the equivalent of one inch of rain per week during the growing season, and fields are flooded during the winter to protect plants from rapid freezing or burning--flooded cranberry bogs are regarded by locals as excellent skating rinks. In springtime, one can easily identify a cranberry bog because the evergreen leaves are red.

Production of cranberries is limited in North America to Massachusetts (leading producer on 13,500 acres with 2 million barrels in 1995, or 670,000 miles if laid end to end), New Jersey, Wisconsin, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, and these fruits cannot be produced commercially in warmer climates because of fungal disease, which occurs in milder climates. In the mid-1980s there were about 700 commercial cranberry growers, and they produced the fruits for Ocean Spray, a cooperative company, which provides more than 90% of worldwide cranberry sales. Annual cranberry production exceeds 50,000 tons and roughly 200 billion fruits. In the U.S., we annually consume about 350 million pounds of cranberries, 20% during Thanksgiving week. Little wonder that Massachusetts has cranberry as the official state berry and state juice.

Originally the cultivated cranberries were picked by hand. In 1884, a Wisconsin worker could earn 75 cents per bushel of picked berries. This method was replaced by harvesting with wooden scoops having dowel-like teeth that comb the plants; workers collected berries en masse by forming a line across the bog and dumping berries into boxes. Then came mechanical, lawnmower-like harvesters with small metal teeth and a conveyor system. These mechanical harvesters are still used for collecting berries for the fresh market.

The most efficient harvesting method utilizes water. A field is flooded with water, and men use a machine with balloon tires and a churning basket ("eggbeater"), which stirs up the water and loosens the berries. Berries, which have air-filled locules, float to the surface, and they are corralled by using a long wooden boom and guided up a conveyor belt, which loads the trucks.

Trucks dump berries at the factory, where they are sorted. Berries are rejected if they do not bounce-they bounce because the skin is taut and unbroken. Berries are cooked in 3000-gallon vats with water and sugar to make sauce or are pressed for . The juice can be fermented into a "wine" (10% ethanol), actually a cider, which is often blended with grape wine or other ciders.

Cranberry bogs may appear to play a minor role in the current U.S. economy, but in colonial times they actually played a major role in the origin of this country. Iron ore (hematite) was discovered beneath the peat bogs of Cape Cod and mainland Massachusetts. This iron ore permitted American colonists to develop their own iron industry, independent of Mother England. These hematite beds were the sources of metal for weapons of the Revolutionary War. When the iron ore was all removed and industry declined in Cape Cod, the cranberry industry emerged to save the local economy.

Be sure to visit Cranberry World of Ocean Spray when the family visits Plymouth Rock and Mayflower II in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

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