Do you know how your Thanksgiving cranberries grow?
Do you know how your Thanksgiving cranberries grow?
Vaccinium oxycoccos (Common cranberry or Northern cranberry) or Vaccinium macrocarpon (American cranberry, large cranberry)
USDA Hardiness Zones: 2 - 6 Click here to view the USDA Hardiness Zone Map
Cranberries are low-growing, evergreen, perennial, woody vines that are best suited to the more temperate zones of the eastern and central United States, no further south than the Appalachian mountains, and north into Canada.
Cranberry plants require cold weather (approximately three months in the 32 to 45 degree Fahrenheit range) in order to trigger their dormant phase, which allows them to “reset” so that they bear fruit again the next season. Although it takes up to three years for a newly planted cranberry plant to fruit, if kept under healthy conditions, it is capable of bearing fruit almost indefinitely. Some still thriving bogs are over 100 years old.
To successfully grow cranberries, a number of factors come into play. Cranberries require acid peat soil and a good, fresh water supply. Commercial cranberries are grown on low-lying vines in wetland beds that are layered with peat, sand, gravel and clay. These beds are known as bogs or marshes, and they are a result of naturally-evolving glacial deposits that have receded over time into holes filled with water and decayed matter.
It is also possible to grow cranberries in a home garden, as long as the soil pH is lower than 5 and the soil has good drainage properties. It is advisable to test the pH levels of the garden soil before attempting to grow cranberries. Sulfur is added to acidify the soil, and sand to facilitate drainage, if necessary.
In order to produce big, healthy cranberries, the blossoms must be well pollinated, so many growers keep beehives alongside their fields.
Although cranberries can be grown from unrooted seedlings, the greatest success comes from planting rooted cuttings (plugs), as they establish more easily in beds.
Rooted stems are severed from the mother plant and successfully transplanted between early spring and fall, as early as April 15 and as late as November; however, cuttings that are planted in mid-summer have the highest success rate. Under the proper soil conditions, the groundcover grows rapidly, and the plants begin to produce fruit within three years. Growers must remain diligent in weeding their cranberry beds, as the plants do not compete well with weeds.
The cranberry vine’s low-lying branches root easily when they come into contact with the ground, and the plant grows into a carpet-like groundcover. During the first year, the bed is constantly watered so that the roots do not die out. A high-nitrogen fertilizer is also used for a successful bed. Once the runners are firmly rooted, they grow into upright stalks, which produce flowers and fruit, usually within the second or third year if grown from cuttings.
If a quicker fruiting time is preferred, it is advisable to purchase and plant three-year cranberry seedlings that are available at nurseries.
Cranberries are harvested in early to mid-fall, prior to the arrival of the first frost (usually in mid-September to early November). When the berries turn a deep ruby red and their seeds are brown, they are ready to harvest. Cranberries grown in home gardens are harvested by hand, simply by gently twisting the berries from the vine.
Commercial growers either dry or wet harvest their crops. Wet harvesters (over 90% of commercial growers) flood their fields, then a mechanical "beater" sweeps through the bog forcing the berries off the vines. Cranberries are hollow so they float to the surface. They are then corraled into one corner of the bog where a mechanized pump sucks them out of the water and loads them onto a truck, washing them along the way.
A dry harvest requires no flooding. Growers push a mechanized harvester that "combs" the cranberries off the vines and loads them into crates that follow alongside.
Following the harvest, cranberry plants are covered with a heavy layer of mulch to protect them from the winter frost. They are uncovered in spring, but must be recovered whenever there is a risk of frost.
Fresh cranberries can be stored up to two months in tightly packed bags in the refrigerator. However, if one berry begins to decay, it quickly spreads to the rest of the fruit and quickly ruins the entire bag. Therefore, it’s important to remove any rotten berries or those that have wrinkles or split skin before storing.
Fresh, whole berries can also be sealed in airtight bags and put in the freezer immediately after they have been picked, washed, and dried. Cranberries that are stored in the freezer can last up to one year.
The cranberry is one of three native fruits to North America (in addition to the blueberry and the Concord grape) that are commercially grown. European explorers made reference to Native Americans using cranberries for food, dye and medicinal purposes as early as 1550.
The cranberry’s name derives from the English pilgrim name for the plant, which is “craneberry,” due to the plant’s small, pink blossoms, said by the pilgrims to resemble the head and beak of the sandhill crane. Early English settlers also sometimes referred to cranberries as “bearberries” because bears often ate them.
Captain Henry Hall, of Massachusetts, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, was the first person to successfully cultivate cranberries in 1816. The cultivated cranberry industry spread north to Maine and south to New Jersey, and then west to Wisconsin by the 1850’s, and to the Pacific northwest by the 1880’s. Because of their high vitamin C content, American whalers and mariners of the nineteenth century often ate cranberries to fight scurvy.
Today, farmers across the United States harvest approximately 40,000 acres of cranberries annually.
The United States of America is the top commercial producer of cranberries, followed by Canada, Belarus, the Republic of Azerbaijan, and Latvia, according to FAOSTAT data from 2007.
Cranberries are most often eaten as an sweet accompaniment to turkey on Thanksgiving Day. They are also used in teas, juices, dressings, desserts, suaces or eaten raw. When dried, they are a popular ingredient in salads, trail mix and other snacks. Cranberry seeds are also used to produce essential oils, which are used in natural beauty and health products.
The health benefits of the cranberry are plentiful. They are known as a “superfood” due to their high antioxidant and nutrient content. Cranberries should be consumed with as little sugar-added as possible because sugars cause inflammation and significantly lower the many benefits that cranberries offer.
Cranberries are an excellent source of vitamin C vitamin E, and vitamin K, which combine to provide antioxidant properties that make the cranberry second only to their fellow superfood, the blueberry.
The vitamin C in cranberries blocks the damage caused by free radicals and boosts the body’s immunity against infectious agents. It is also helpful in hindering the growth of bacteria in the mouth, helping to prevent dental plaque and protecting against gum disease.
The vitamin E in cranberries is an immunity booster that protects against diseases caused by free radicals, including cancer. Another benefit of the vitamin E in cranberries is that it reduces cholesterol.
Vitamin K is named after the German word for blood clotting (koagulation), and foods such as cranberries that are rich in vitamin K can help with vascular conditions such as bleeding gums and heavy menstrual bleeding. It also promotes cardiovascular health and helps prevent calcification (hardening) in the arteries, which helps prevent conditions such as stroke and heart disease.
Cranberries also promote healthy bones and teeth, due to their vitamin K and phosphorus content. The bone-building properties of vitamin K are essential in preventing fractures and conditions such as osteoporosis.
The cranberry is also high in fiber, providing approximately 15% of the daily value of fiber in just one-half cup. Fiber helps promote a healthy digestive process by bulking stool and speeding the elimination process. The fiber also contributes to a “full” sensation, which is helpful in losing weight.
Cranberries are perhaps best known for their role in maintaining a healthy urinary system. They both fight and prevent urinary tract infections. Although scientists once attributed this to the high acidity of cranberries, recent scientific thought suggests that cranberries contain substances that prevent UTI-causing bacteria from sticking to the walls of the urinary tract.