The Cranberry Harvest

The cranberry is one of only three fruits indigenous to North America.  (In case you are wondering, the other two are Concord grapes and blueberries.)  When the pilgrims arrived in the 17th century, the Native Americans shared with them the many uses of this bitter little berry.  Native Americans mixed crushed cranberries with venison and melted fat to form a high protein cake called pemmican.  Pemmican was formed, dried in the sun and taken on long journeys (perhaps the predecessor of today's Power Bars). 

In addition to other recipes, the Native Americans used cranberries as a medicine to treat various ailments including poison arrow wounds and as a dye for rugs and blankets. 

Harvesting cranberries at Tihonet Village in Wareham. Photo by Jane Booth.

The pilgrims soon began to incorporate cranberries, rich in Vitamin C into their own diets.  Captain John Smith first relayed a description of cranberries in 1614.  To appease King Charles II in 1677, the colonists sent a gift worthy of a royal, consisting of Indian corn, 3,000 codfish and ten barrels of cranberries.   

In the early 1800s, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, Captain Henry Hall of Dennis happened upon a natural method for increasing the production of cranberries.  Hall noticed that sand shifting over the cranberry bogs, encouraged greater growth rates.  He implemented a process that was quickly copied and is still used today. 

Hall began growing cranberries to feed his sailors at sea.  The high Vitamin C content proved excellent protection against scurvy. 

Eastern Native Americans called cranberries sassamanesh.  Cape Cod Pequots and South Jersey Leni-Lenape tribes referred to the fruit as ibimi or bitter berry.  Algonquins in Wisconsin called them atoqua.  But it was German and Dutch settlers that gave us the name by which they are known today.  They thought the vine blossom resembled the neck, head and bill of a crane, hence the term "craneberry." 

There are 440 cranberries in one pound, 4,400 in a gallon of juice and 440,000 in a 100 pound barrel.  Americans consume over 400 million pounds of cranberries a year, 80 million of which are served alongside turkey on Thanksgiving. 

The majority of North America's producing bogs are in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Washington state, Oregon, British Columbia and Quebec.  Of the 39,000 acres of bogs, roughly half are in Massachusetts.

About 10% of total crops are "dry harvested" and sold as fresh fruit.  The other 85% are "wet harvested" and used to make juices, sauces and other processed food items.  If not damaged, a vine can grow for years; some vines are over 150 years old!

Cranberries grow and thrive under specific conditions.  A proper combination of acid peat soil, fresh water & sand can make for a successful crop.  Contrary to popular opinion, cranberries do not grow in water.  They grow on vines in beds or bogs of layered sand, peat, gravel and clay.  Glacial deposits formed the bogs centuries ago.  Originally, cranberries were dry harvested by hand, a tedious and laborious process.  In the 1850s, the first hand held cranberry scoops were used, greatly improving the process.

To learn more about cranberries or to take a bog tour, visit the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association website.

Courtesy of the Best Read Guide Cape Cod.