Dakota Gardener: Cranberries, an American tradition

Esther McGinnis
NDSU Extension
Esther McGinnis, NDSU Extension horticulturist

With Thanksgiving fast approaching, we turn our attention to preparing one of the year’s great feasts. The turkey is the neutral palette against which the side dishes reign supreme. Each year, I make a refreshingly tart cranberry sauce from scratch. Many of us take cranberries for granted but this fruit has a fascinating history and production method.

Were cranberries served at the first Thanksgiving? No printed menu exists from the 1621 Thanksgiving in Massachusetts but it is feasible that the Wampanoag tribe may have brought cranberries to the feast. Cranberries are one of the few fruits that are native to the United States and were prevalent on the East Coast.

Cranberries, one of the few fruits that are native to the United States, are grown primarily in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Oregon and New Jersey.

The history of cranberries doesn’t begin in 1621. The Wampanoag and other tribes have been gathering these nutritious berries for hundreds if not thousands of years. The fruit was eaten in a number of different ways including fresh, dried, and baked into fritters.

One of the more innovative uses was to mix dried venison meat, fat and crushed cranberries to make pemmican. Arguably, this could have been the world’s first protein bar. The fruit’s acidity along with the meat fat prevented the pemmican from spoiling and this portable product could be taken on long trips.

Cranberries are still a culturally important crop for the modern Wampanoag tribe. They have inhabited Massachusetts for more than 12,000 years and have a long history of gathering cranberries for the winter. To this day, the Wampanoag celebrate Cranberry Day each October. Children have a school holiday to gather with their elders in the local bogs to harvest berries and preserve their traditions.

Most individuals have never seen cranberries growing in the wild, because they grow in wetlands called bogs that have sandy, acidic soil. The optimum soil pH for cranberry production is astonishingly acidic and is comparable to acid rain. Considering that most soils are alkaline in the northern Great Plains, this precludes cranberry production in our region. Wisconsin is by far the largest producer of cranberries followed by Massachusetts, Oregon and New Jersey.

Both wet and dry harvesting methods are used in commercial cranberry production. We’ve all seen the cranberry juice commercials showing berries floating on water. For the lower-cost processing market, farmers flood their fields at harvest to a depth of 18 inches; the water is churned to shake the berry from the vine, and the cranberries, which each contain an air pocket, float to the surface. Then the farmers use a boom to gather the floating berries.

For the higher-quality fresh market, farmers use lawnmower-sized harvesters to painstakingly pick the fruit. This process is very labor intensive and leaves a lot of berries in the field. The woody cranberry vines grow in moist soils but are not submerged in water during the growing season because they would die.

Acidic foods cut the richness of fatty dishes that we serve at Thanksgiving. Consider adding a colorful cranberry chutney to complement your turkey, pork chops or ham.