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The American Cranberries are a group of evergreen dwarf shrubs or trailing vines in the genus Vaccinium subgenus Oxycoccos, or in some treatments, in the distinct genus Oxycoccos. They can be found in acidic bogs throughout the cooler regions of the Northern Hemisphere.
Cranberries are low, creeping shrubs or vines up to 2 m long and 5 to 20 cm in height; they have slender, wiry stems that are not thickly woody and have small evergreen leaves. The flowers are dark pink, with very distinct reflexed petals, leaving the style and stamens fully exposed and pointing forward. They are pollinated by domestic honey bees. The fruit is a berry that is larger than the leaves of the plant; it is initially white but turns a deep red when fully ripe. It is edible, with an acidic taste that can overwhelm its sweetness.
Cranberries are a major commercial crop in certain American states and Canadian provinces (see cultivation and uses below). Most cranberries are processed into products such as juice, sauce, and sweetened dried cranberries, with the remainder, sold fresh to consumers. Cranberry sauce is regarded as an indispensable part of traditional American and Canadian Thanksgiving menus and European winter festivals. Since the early 21st century within the global functional food industry, there has been a rapidly growing recognition of cranberries for their consumer product popularity, nutrient content, and antioxidant qualities, giving them commercial status as a “superfruit”.
Species and description
There are three to four species of cranberry, classified in two sections: Subgenus Oxycoccos, sect. Oxycoccos
- Vaccinium oxycoccos or Oxycoccos palustris (Common Cranberry or Northern Cranberry) is widespread throughout the cool temperate Northern Hemisphere, including northern Europe, northern Asia, and northern North America. It has small 510 mm leaves. The flowers are dark pink, with a purple central spike, produced on finely hairy stems. The fruit is a small pale pink berry, with a refreshing sharp acidic flavor.
- Vaccinium microcarpum or Oxycoccos microcarpus (Small Cranberry) occurs in northern Europe and northern Asia and differs from V. oxycoccus in the leaves being more triangular, and the flower stems hairless. Some botanists include it within V. oxycoccos.
- Vaccinium macrocarpon or Oxycoccos macrocarpus (Large cranberry, American Cranberry, Bearberry) native to northeastern North America (eastern Canada, and the eastern United States, south to North Carolina at high altitudes). It differs from V. oxycoccus in the leaves being larger, 1020 mm long, and in its slightly apple-like taste.
Etymology and history
The name cranberry derives from “cranberry”, first named by early European settlers in America who felt the expanding flower, stem, calyx, and petals resembled the neck, head, and bill of a crane. Another name used in northeastern Canada is moss berry. The traditional English name for Vaccinium oxycoccos, fenberry, originated from plants found growing in fen (marsh) lands. In the 17th century, New England cranberries were sometimes called “bearberries” as bears were often seen feeding on them.
In North America, Native Americans were the first to use cranberries as food. Native Americans used cranberries in a variety of foods, especially for pemmican, wound medicine, and dye. Calling the red berries Sassamanash, natives may have introduced cranberries to starving English settlers in Massachusetts who incorporated the berries into traditional Thanksgiving feasts. American Revolutionary War veteran Henry Hall is credited as the first to farm cranberries in the Cape Cod town of Dennis around 1816. In the 1820s cranberries were shipped to Europe. Cranberries became popular for wild harvesting in the Nordic countries and Russia. In Scotland, the berries were originally wild-harvested but with the loss of suitable habitat, the plants have become so scarce that this is no longer done.
Geography and bog method
Cranberries are a major commercial crop in the U.S. states of Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Tennessee, Washington, and Wisconsin, as well as in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, New Brunswick, Ontario, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and Quebec. According to the Economic Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture, Wisconsin is the leading producer of cranberries, with over half of U.S. production. Massachusetts is the second-largest U.S. producer, with 28% of total domestic production. Very small production is found in southern Argentina and Chile, the Netherlands, and Eastern Europe.
Historically, cranberry beds were constructed in wetlands. Currently, cranberry beds are constructed in upland areas that have shallow water tables. The topsoil is scraped off to form dykes around the bed perimeter. Clean sand is hauled into a depth of four to eight inches. The surface is laser-leveled flat to provide even drainage. Beds are frequently drained with socked tile in addition to the perimeter ditch. In addition to making it possible to hold water, the dykes allow equipment to service the beds without driving on the vines. Irrigation equipment is installed in the bed to provide irrigation for vine growth and for spring and autumn frost protection.
Cranberry vines are propagated by moving vines from an established bed. The vines are spread on the surface of the sand of the new bed and pushed into the sand with a blunt disk. The vines are watered frequently during the first few weeks until roots form and new shoots grow. Beds are given frequent light application of nitrogen fertilizer during the first year. The cost of establishment for new cranberry beds is estimated to be about US$70,000 per hectare (approx. $28,300 per acre).
A common misconception about cranberry production is that the beds remain flooded throughout the year. During the growing season, cranberry beds are not flooded but are irrigated regularly to maintain soil moisture. Beds are flooded in the autumn to facilitate harvest and again during the winter to protect against low temperatures. In cold climates like Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and eastern Canada, the winter flood typically freezes into ice, while in warmer climates the water remains liquid. When ice forms on the beds, trucks can be driven onto the ice to spread a thin layer of sand that helps to control pests and rejuvenate the vines. Sanding is done every three to five years
Cranberries are harvested in the fall when the fruit takes on its distinctive deep red color. This is usually in September through the first part of November. To harvest cranberries, the beds are flooded with six to eight inches of water above the vines. A harvester is driven through the beds to remove the fruit from the vines. For the past 50 years, water reel-type harvesters have been used. Harvested cranberries float in the water and can be corralled into a corner of the bed and conveyed or pumped from the bed. From the farm, cranberries are taken to receiving stations where they are cleaned, sorted, and stored prior to packaging or processing.
Although most cranberries are wet-picked as described above, 510% of the US crop is still dry-picked. This entails higher labor costs and lower yield, but dry-picked berries are less bruised and can be sold as fresh fruit instead of having to be immediately frozen or processed. Originally performed with two-handed comb scoops, dry picking is today accomplished by motorized, walk-behind harvesters which must be small enough to traverse beds without damaging the vines.
Cranberries for fresh markets are stored in shallow bins or boxes with perforated or slatted bottoms, which deter decay by allowing air to circulate. Because harvest occurs in late autumn, cranberries for fresh markets are frequently stored in thick-walled barns without mechanical refrigeration. Temperatures are regulated by opening and closing vents in the barn as needed. Cranberries destined for processing are usually frozen in bulk containers shortly after arriving at a receiving station.