In the Garden: Tart Doesn’t Begin to Describe It

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By Charles Kidder

In a fit of nutritional virtuousness several years ago, I decided to give cranberry juice a try.  Not cranberry juice cocktail, not some “cranberry-with-other-natural-juices” concoction, but just 100 percent straight-up juice of the cranberry.

Yeow!! That stuff is tart. I quickly learned that I had to mix it with something sweeter to get it down. So much for virtue.

Cranberry is the common name for three (or perhaps four, depending on whom you believe) members of the genus Vaccinium, which is also home to the many species of blueberries.  The original name, craneberry, referred to the flower’s resemblance to the neck of a crane.  Small cranberry or bog cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccus), grows naturally across northern North America and northern Eurasia. To the best of my knowledge, this species is not typically cultivated but may still be wild-harvested in some areas. The mountain cranberry (V. erythrocarpum) is native only to the Appalachians from West Virginia to Georgia. A similar species (or variety?) grows in the mountains of Japan. The large cranberry (V. macrocarpon) is native only to North America, from Newfoundland south to New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the upper Midwest. It is also found in disjunct populations along the Appalachians down to Tennessee, as well as in a few counties in the coastal plain of Virginia and North Carolina.  This species is the one cultivated across the northern U.S. and southern Canada. Despite the well-known brand Ocean Spray, Wisconsin is number one in U.S. production, growing twice as many cranberries as Massachusetts.

All cranberry species are trailing shrubs, meaning that they are low-growing, with wiry stems that arch down to the ground and take root. Leaves are small, glossy and evergreen, although they turn bronze in cold weather. Small white-to-pinkish flowers appear in spring, and the familiar ½” red fruits mature in late fall.

As native plants, cranberries grow in bogs—poorly drained, acidic, peaty depressions. In the early 1800s, Captain Henry Hall of Dennis, Massachusetts, noticed that cranberries grew better when sand blew into the bogs and covered them a little bit.  He transplanted a few stems and covered them with sand, thereby starting cranberry cultivation in the U.S. Today most cranberries are grown in artificial bogs, with a clay layer at the bottom, topped by thin layers of gravel and peat, with sand at the surface. Every three years the bogs are topped with an additional 1”-2” of sand to discourage weeds and to provide a better layer for stem growth. Plants live indefinitely, with some known to be more than 150 years old.

Although cranberries require abundant water during the growing season, they do not grow in standing water. Pictures showing a brilliant scarlet layer on a pond, or actors in a TV commercial standing knee deep in a red bog were taken during harvest, when bogs are flooded to allow the floating berries to be more easily scooped up. The water is left in the bogs for the winter, where it freezes and provides some insulation to the plants underneath.

Cranberries in sauces, jellies and relishes have been a traditional accompaniment to holiday dinners both here and in the UK for many years. This was pretty much the situation until November 1959, when the Great Cranberry Scare hit. The U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare announced that some of the crop had been contaminated with the herbicide aminotriazole. The market collapsed, and growers learned a hard lesson. Pesticides were used more carefully, and year-round markets were developed: dried sweetened cranberries (Craisins is a trademarked brand name), “cocktails,” and fruit juice blends with some actual cranberry juice all extended the season.

And speaking of those juice blends, dried cranberries, and so on—be aware that many of them contain lots of sugar, more than sugary sodas in some cases. Granted, you probably can’t swallow cranberries without some additional sweetener, but if you add it at home you’ll have some control of the proportions. Also, while we’re considering what’s going into your cranberry blends, what about the health benefits of the berries themselves? Since I am neither a physician, a nutritionist, or any type of health professional, I will politely skirt this issue. However, you may recall a recent news story stating there was no evidence that cranberry compounds were effective in preventing urinary tract infections.

Does anybody around here actually grow cranberries as either an ornamental or as a food crop? If so, I’d like to hear about it. (Blueberries would be the much more likely choice if you want to keep things in the same genus.) I imagine that it’s not an easy undertaking.  Cranberries want full sun but cool roots, which could be provided by adequate mulching.  Moisture must be abundant, but drainage should also be good. You could create an artificial bog as commercial growers do, but that would be a major project. If you had a summer place in Maine, it could be a wonderful groundcover, however. In the South, you could try growing it in containers, as described by woody plant expert Michael Dirr; he uses a mix of ½ soil and ½ sphagnum peat.

Finally, if you put a string of cranberries and popcorn outside for decorative purposes, will the birds quickly strip it? I guess that’s a good thing, if you’re okay with a short-lived decoration.

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