The turkey wasn’t even fully cooked and I was already looking forward to turkey sandwiches slathered in rich red cranberry sauce, maybe even the whole berry style. However, I confess to knowing little about cranberries as they don’t grow in Idaho. So, I did a little internet sleuthing to find out what I could about cranberries.
I was curious about the difference between the highbush cranberry that actually grows in my yard and the cranberry that graces the Thanksgiving Day table. The high bush cranberry does produce red berries but it turns out that this imposter is not even in the same family as true cranberries. That dashes my hopes for homegrown cranberry sauce.
True cranberries are in the heath and heather family (Eriaceae) and are closely related to blueberries and that Idaho favorite, huckleberries. All reside within the genus Vaccinium and even the subgenus Vaccinium.
There are three species of cranberries in North America. They are native to acidic swamps and bogs and originally grew from the mountains of Georgia to the Canada Maritimes and as far west as Minnesota. Cultivation has now spread cranberries to the Pacific Northwest.
Unlike the blueberry or huckleberry, the most cranberries grow on vines or small shrubs. Harvestable crops are no longer grown in natural wetlands, but rather, in fields carefully leveled and prepared for production.
While the vines are kept moist, they are not flooded all season long. Flooding occurs just before harvest. Berries that have been dislodged from the vines float on the surface and are scooped up.
Cranberries have been grown commercially in the United States since 1816. Production has since spread to five states and six Canadian provinces. Minnesota produces half the USA crop and British Columbia is responsible for 95% of Canada’s production.
At one time, cranberries were known by other more descriptive names. In England they were known as fenberries. In Canada they were called mossberries. Both refer to the conditions where they grew. Colonists often referred to them as bearberries, apparently because black bears demonstrated an affinity for them.
The cranberry has been touted as useful in treating or preventing urinary tract infections and even prostate cancer. However, all the evidence for this seems to be purely anecdotal. There is no scientific support of extensive health benefits. In fact, because cranberries are so tart, they require a teaspoon of sugar per ounce for sweetening. That is more than sugared soda pop.
Cranberries have been a part of traditional feasts since colonial times. As early as 1550, there are documented accounts of Native Americans using cranberries and sharing them with colonists. By the 1650’s cranberry sauce was a common accompaniment for turkey and other meats. Because cranberries boast modest amounts of vitamin C, sailors ate them to battle scurvy.
Well, the turkey is done and everyone is hungry. I can hardly wait to adorn a nice slice of breast with a thick slab of cranberry sauce. A native bird paired with a native berry is the perfect combination.