10 Things I Learned About Cranberries That Will Bog-gle the Mind
Spotting a bag of fresh cranberries in the produce section of the grocery store makes me very happy. Cooler weather has arrived, Thanksgiving is coming, and those bright red pearls of tartness are ready to make their way into everything from scones to mixed drinks!
When my husband connected with a fellow fly fisherman on social media, we received an invitation to a tour of his cranberry farm in Wisconsin during harvest season. On a beautiful October day, we not only watched the intriguing process of the harvest, we learned just how much we did not know about this superfood.
1. Native Fruit of North America
The cranberry is one of the few fruits native to North America, and one of only three that are commercially harvested. Native Americans and early settlers not only relied on cranberries as a food source, but also for their medicinal properties and as a dye for clothing and other textiles.
2. Vines not Bushes
One of the two biggest misconceptions about cranberries … at least in my mind … is that they grow on bushes. They actually grow on low lying vines. Often compared to strawberry plants, the vines trail throughout the bog creating a network of runners and roots from which upright “daughter plants” grow to produce leaves, flowers, and eventually, fruit. The stem and leaves look similar to that of a boxwood shrub.
While there are several theories about the origin of the name, I’m going with the one that claims early settlers called them “crane-berries” because the blossom resembled the head and neck of the crane. Feel free to investigate other theories, but this image and explanation have found a happy-place in my head.
4. Berries Turn from Green to White to Red
The immature cranberry is green. As it matures, it turns white. Throughout the ripening process, cranberries turn pink and then red, with the color deepening over time. White cranberries are perfectly fine to eat and will turn red if frozen or cooked!
5. New Buds in Fall, Not Spring
Those green cranberries? Unlike most berries that form in the spring, cranberry buds form in the fall. In fact, they are present at harvest, the promise of another year’s crop. Protecting these buds over winter is a challenge requiring the constant attention of the farmers.
6. Not Grown in Water
The second biggest misconception … again, in my mind … is that cranberries are grown in water. A bog is actually a large basin, carefully constructed and maintained with sand, peat, gravel, and clay. The intricacies of the process are far beyond my ability to explain but it is fascinating to listen to the balance of water, sand, temperature, oxygen, etc. required to maintain a healthy ecosystem.
The photos we see, where the cranberry vines are suspended in water and the fruit is floating on top, are taken during harvest. The bogs are flooded when the berries are ripe. Small tractors with harrows drive through the bog, releasing the berries from the vines. This process has to be gentle enough not to damage the vines themselves or the fruit. Once released, the berries float, they are gathered together by a retractable boom, and lifted by conveyor or pump into a truck. This is called wet-harvesting. The berries collected in this way are most often used to make juices, sauces, or “Craisins”.
Dry-harvesting is required for the fresh cranberries we find in store. This process is done with a walk-behind machines that comb the berries off the top of the plants. I got a quick lesson in dry-harvesting as it was done in the “good old days”. This scoop was a big improvement from hand-harvesting but my arms didn’t last long and I cannot imagine doing this all day, every day.
The bogs are drained and then re-flooded for winter to protect the vines and buds until spring arrives.
7. Why Cranberries Float
Inside each cranberry are four air pockets.
That’s all it takes.
8. Wisconsin Leads the Way
Almost all of the cranberries grown in the US are grown in five states: Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington. Wisconsin leads the way, producing over 50% of the nation’s supply.
9. Health Benefits
Cranberries are high in vitamin C and a good source of fiber and manganese. They are highly recognized as an excellent source of antioxidants, including proanthocyanidins which prevent urinary tract infections. And then there’s more: help balance cholesterol levels, improve digestive health, strengthen heart health, and prevent cancer.
Also, cranberries contains the amino-acid, tyrptophan, which can increase your body’s production of serotonin. And serotonin produces that feeling of well-being and contentment. That explains why cranberries make me so happy!
NOTE: Do be careful when buying cranberry products.
Most have added sugar to counter the inherent tartness of the berry.
Check the nutrition labels.
10: Cranberry Recipes
One of the greatest things about researching topics like this is I inevitably find new recipes … can’t wait to try this Cranberry Ketchup on a turkey sandwich!
And there’s always the tried-and-true recipes. If you haven’t tried this one … a Picnic Life Foodie original … this is the time to do so!
This incredible visit to Wisconsin was only possible because of the great kindness of Kerry. We had such an interesting experience and gained such appreciation for the work and ecosystem required to farm cranberries. Kerry made a comment at the end of our tour about how he had forgotten how special his work is. What is routine and common to him was unique and intriguing to us. We live in an amazingly intricate world … and a pretty tasty one at that!
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