The Last Berry

by Sarah West


Unlike the berries of summer, we tend to leave cranberries to the specialist. We happily plant a strawberry patch, wrestle canes of raspberries or blackberries into rows, tuck a blueberry bush here or there, but few gardeners ever think to grow cranberries. It isn’t so surprising—our national opinion of this peculiar fruit is limited at best. Cranberries are an essential part of Thanksgiving dinner; dried, they add a healthful zing to muffins or salads; juiced, they mix a sweetly tart cocktail. Why grow a fruit that is best after processing, that keeps well in the freezer, that you would never, on a stroll through the garden or market, eat out of hand?

For most of its history, the cranberry hasn’t been grown by anyone. Native to the eastern United States and Canada, foraged cranberries were an important food and medicine source of the indigenous communities of the region. After drying, cranberries were pounded into pemmican, a shelf-stable mixture that also included dried meat and fat (the original protein bar) and was widely adopted by voyageurs and other explorers needing packable foods.

Member of the heath family, a tribe of low-growing, berry-producing shrubs that rings the globe’s northern latitudes, cranberries have many cousins, notably the blueberry, huckleberry, and lingonberry. Though modern-day cranberry cultivars were developed from the North American species, Europeans tasting them for the first time may have recognized their citrusy tang. A number of similar species are found in northern European countries, growing alongside ponds and bogs, spreading through mossy understory, in a range that spans Iceland to Russia.

Especially favored in Nordic cuisine, lingonberries (like a slightly sweeter cranberry) are cooked into sauces, syrups, relishes, and pastries. Russian texts describe preserving them in jars topped with water to make a sour constitutional beverage enjoyed for its bracing flavor and widely acknowledged medicinal qualities. The English maintain a tradition of eating cranberry relish with the Christmas meal, a habit that likely extends from medieval times, when wild-collected cranberry relatives were mashed with spices or sweeteners to accompany wild game.

Despite their prominence throughout the northern hemisphere, cranberries and their ilk did not become a domesticated crop until the 1800’s, when New England farmers were plowing through one agricultural fad after another. Adventurous gardeners added a patch; farmers and horticulturists gathered choice cuttings from wild plants and embarked on the long process of taming them for commercial production. Having become a popular winter fruit (high in vitamin-C, cranberries help prevent scurvy—and blandness—in starch-heavy winter diets), growers set their sights on creating a new and lucrative industry.

Ironically, it was a British scientist (in his home garden) who made the first breakthrough in commercial cranberry cultivation. In the wild, cranberries often grow near bodies of water, an observation that led many to attempt growing them in standing water (a technique that resulted in stunted plants). Some planted them into prime garden soil, the sort any lettuce or carrot would thrive in, but the cranberries recoiled. Curious about the little-understood needs of this trendy New World fruit, Sir Joseph Banks, explorer and horticulturist, brought a few back to his English estate after a visit to America.

Setting them in boxes drilled with holes, he layered rocks, then soil and detritus from a nearby bog, before tucking in the cranberry starts. The planter was submerged five inches below the surface of a pond, allowing the lower roots access to consistent moisture, while elevating the majority of the root zone above the water line. The technique worked, and Banks soon had a thriving cranberry patch. Though contemporary growers have ditched the planter boxes for a system of dykes, Banks’ discovery revealed the cranberry’s preference for a combination of sandy, well draining but humus-rich soil and a high water table.

Cranberry plants send out lateral branches that can put down roots, self-propagating one plant into many in just one growing season. A cranberry patch is a tangled thing, impossible to preserve in tidy rows suited to mechanical weeding. Thus, organic cranberry growing is challenging; conventional growers treat weeds with herbicide, organic growers must pull them out by hand.

Many of us still associate cranberry farming with water. If we have any image of a cranberry patch at all, it is of one at harvest time, when most growers flood their fields. Since cranberries are partially hollow, they float. Farmers agitate the plants below the water level and the berries pop up, painting the surface of the bog a striking red and making for an efficient harvest.

A small number of growers harvest their berries without flooding, resulting in better quality fruit for the fresh market. Fresh cranberries give an especially good pop to pastries that showcase whole berries, such as tarts or cakes. Treated like grapes, they have an under-explored savory side, fit for roasting on their own or alongside pork or poultry. Roughly chopped and mixed with some combination of herbs, alliums, or citrus, fresh cranberries can make an intriguing winter salsa that adds a touch of lightness to heavier winter fare.

And that’s the charm of cranberries, extending the berry season into the realm of storage crops, bringing brightness into a season whose other flavors are pulled from the dark soil.