By Maryann Readal
The cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon, is a native American fruit, as well as an herb that is full of nutrition and medicinal value. It is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for November. Cranberry is native to the eastern part of the United States, southern Canada, and the southern Appalachian area. It is a perennial, low–growing, trailing vine. The vine can reach a length of six feet with upright stolons growing up along it. It is these upright stolons that bear the flowers and then the cranberry fruit. Rich, boggy wetlands are the ideal environment for cranberries to grow, but they are also grown in areas with a shallow water table. Flowers bloom in May and June on the stolons and terminal ends of the vine. Because the flower pollen is too heavy to be carried by the wind, pollination is dependent on native bees and honey bees. Fruit matures after about 80 days, and harvesting begins at the end of September and extends into October. To harvest the berries, the growing area is flooded. Then, the plants are “beaten” with specialized equipment causing the berries, which have four small air pockets in them, to float to the top. (These air pockets also make fresh cranberries bouncy.) The floating berries are corralled into one area and then harvested using conveyor belts. This “wet harvesting” method is used for berries that become cranberry juice and sauce. About 5% of berries are “dry harvested” and packed for use as fresh fruit. Dry harvesting is done by mechanized “combing” of the fruit from the vines (Cranberry Institute, n.d.).
Native Americans use the cranberry to make pemmican, a dried food cake. They were the first to use cranberries to make a sweet sauce using maple sugar (Caruso, n.d.). They also use cranberries as a poultice to treat fevers and wounds. The juice is used as a dye for their blankets and rugs.
The Pilgrims named the berry “crane berry,” because the unopened flower resembled the head, neck, and bill of a crane. The name was later shortened to cranberry. Some also called it “bear berry” because bears liked to eat the berries.
Cultivation of cranberries began in the early 1800s in the northeast US. The first commercial cranberry bed was planted by a Revolutionary War veteran, Henry Hall, in 1816 in Massachusetts. Today, more than 40,000 acres of cranberries are farmed in the United States alone (Cranberry Marketing Committee, 2022). In the beginning, shipments of cranberries were packed in water in barrels containing 100 pounds of fresh fruit. The 100-pound barrel continues to be the standard measurement for cranberries.
Elizabeth Lee, in New Jersey, made and sold the first cranberry sauce in 1917. Due to the success of her sauce, Bog Sweet Cranberry Sauce, she partnered with two other growers and formed the company Ocean Spray in 1930.
Cranberries contain a high amount of Vitamin C. In the early days, they were eaten by sailors to prevent scurvy. Today, cranberries are thought to prevent urinary tract infections (UTIs). However, studies show that cranberries do not cure these infections (Mount Sinai, n.d.). But chemicals in cranberries may help to prevent bacteria from sticking to the urinary tract walls, which could prevent UTIs from developing. In 2020, the FDA allowed cranberry producers to label their products saying that there is “limited” evidence to support the claim that cranberries prevent urinary tract infections.
Recent research shows that cranberries can be healthy in other ways. Some research suggests that they can prevent bacterial infections that cause ulcers in the stomach. They also may help slow the buildup of dental plaque. Cranberries have two dozen antioxidant compounds, which help protect cells from damage that can lead to serious diseases such as cancer and heart disease (WebMD, 2020). Cranberries also contain salicylic acid, which can help reduce swelling and prevent blood clots from forming.
In 2002, several studies found that the antioxidants in cranberries appear to give some protection against Alzheimer’s disease (Univ. of Maine, 2012). In the past, cranberry has been used to treat the common cold, enlarged prostate, and kidney stones. However, there is no good evidence to support the effectiveness of these uses of cranberry.
Cranberries are a popular accompaniment at holiday meals. A meal of roasted turkey is not complete without the sweet tanginess of cranberry sauce. About 20% of cranberries are consumed at Thanksgiving. It is interesting to note that cranberries are more tart than lemons and also contain less sugar than lemons (Alfaro, 2021). Adding a quarter teaspoon of baking soda can help reduce the tartness of cranberries and, therefore, reduce the need for extra sugar.
Fresh, frozen, or dried cranberries can be added to pies and cakes. Dried cranberries may need to be rehydrated before being used. Dried cranberries can also be substituted for raisins in many recipes. Fresh cranberries are used to make sauces and jellies. When cooking fresh cranberries, they should only be cooked until the skins begin to pop. Chopped fresh cranberries make a colorful addition to salads. They can be a zingy substitute for cherries or pomegranates as well. Fresh cranberries can be frozen and kept in the freezer for up to a year. Frozen cranberries do not have to be unthawed before using. The Cosmopolitan drink is made with cranberry juice. White cranberry juice is made with cranberries that have not yet ripened.
Fresh, dried, or frozen, this is the season to add cranberry, one of our native fruits, to your meals for color, taste, nutrition, and good health. For more information, a beautiful screen saver, and recipes for using cranberry, please visit The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month webpage.
Photo Credits: 1) Cranberry fruit (Chrissy Moore); 2) “Wet” cranberry harvesting (Public Domain); 3) Cranberry flower (Public Domain); 4) Elizabeth Lee, founder Ocean Spray company (Public Domain); 5) Cranberry supplement (Public Domain); 6) Cranberry fruit and plant (Chrissy Moore); 7) Cranberry fruit (Public Domain).
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Alfaro, Danilo. 2021. What are cranberries. Accessed 10/11/22. https://www.thespruceeats.com/what-are-cranberries-5199220
Cranberry Institute. n.d. About cranberries. Accessed 10/4/22. https://www.cranberryinstitute.org/cranberry-health-research/library/category/new-researchCranberry
The cranberry story. n.d. Accessed 10/17/22 https://www.nj.gov/pinelands/infor/educational/curriculum/pinecur/tcs.htm
Filipone, Peggy Trowbridge. 2019. Cranberry cooking tips. Accessed 10/11/22. https://www.thespruceeats.com/cranberry-cooking-tips-1807845
Griffin, R. Morgan. 2021. Cranberries and your health. Accessed 10/11/22. https://www.webmd.com/diet/supplement-guide-cranberry
Mount Sinai. n.d. Cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon. Accessed 10/11/22. https:// www.mountsinai.org/healthlibrary/herb/cranberry#:~:text=Aspirin%3A%20Like%20aspirin%2C%20cranberries%20contain,drink%20a%20lot%20of%20juice.
Natural History of the American Cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon Ait. Accessed 10/4/22. http://www.umass.edu/cranberry/downloads/nathist.pdf
University of Maine Cooperative Extension. n.d. Cranberry facts and history. Accessed 10/11/22. http://extension.umaine.edu/cranberries/cranberry-facts-and-history
Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Texas Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. Maryann is also a certified Native Landscape Specialist. She lectures on herbs and plants and does the herb training for several Master Gardener programs. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.