Raise a Glass to Cranberries

These Native American treasures can add bright flavor, color and health to your menu year-round.

| December/January 2008

“The wind proving favourable, we proceeded to Cranberry Lake, so called from the great quantities of cranberries growing in the swamps …. the prospect of a plentiful supply of fish, rice and cranberries are winter comforts of too great consequence to be slighted.”
—John Long, 1791 Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader

From refreshing cocktails to savory salsas and sophisticated desserts, cranberries have made a big splash in recent years. Americans eat more than 600 million pounds of the little red berries, either fresh or as juice, each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

And although most people don’t think of the cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) as an herb, this Native American gem has been a source of food, dye and medicine for centuries. Native people mixed cranberries with dried deer meat to make pemmican, a long-lasting food carried on hunting trips, and also used the plant to treat wounds and to dye blankets. American colonists quickly adopted the cranberry themselves, calling it “craneberry” for the flowers’ resemblance to the head and bill of a crane.

Today, no table is complete without a dish of tangy, ruby-red cranberry sauce during the holiday season. But this versatile fruiting herb offers so many tasty possibilities; why not use it to add sparkle and good health to foods year-round? To ensure a steady supply, stock up now when cranberries are plentiful (simply freeze the bags for up to one year) … or plan to plant your own cranberry cache.

Berry Basics

In the wild, cranberry plants grow in acidic soil, usually in a marsh or bog. The semi-evergreen vines root along runners, which send up 6- to 18-inch fruiting shoots. Flowers form on the 1-year-old shoots and, if pollination is good, red berry fruits grow and mature by autumn.

But you don’t need a bog to grow cranberries yourself. Like their relative the blueberry, cranberries thrive in a sunny site with loose, acidic (4.5 to 5.5 pH) soil. If your soil is not naturally acidic, mix moist sphagnum peat moss (or shredded pine bark) and leaf compost into the top 8 inches before you plant. Or grow the plants in a large container, where you can tailor the soil to suit the plants’ needs. They need little or no fertilizer—don’t use manure, which is high in salts. 
Keep the plants well watered (if using tap water, be sure the pH is 5.5 or below) throughout the growing season and into fall, when buds form for the following year. In November, mulch the plants with leaves or pine needles; remove the mulch when shoots begin to grow the following spring. Every other spring, add a ½-inch layer of sand to the bed to encourage root growth and to block weeds.

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