America’s Superfruit: Growing and Harvesting Cranberries in North America

Growing cranberries in bogs throughout North America has always been valuable to harvesters, but the cranberry business has made this small fruit even more valuable.

  • Growing and Harvesting Cranberries
    Growing cranberries has been a crucial part of North Americans’ lives over the centuries. They have provided food and nourishment, and have also warded off various cancers.
    Photo by Fotolia/Chris Boswell
  • America's Founding Fruit
    In "America's Founding Fruit," Susan Playfair examines the cranberry, one of three cultivated fruits that are native to North America, tracing its history, origins and importance through the centuries, and then explores how it will handle present day's warming climate.
    Cover courtesy University Press of New England

  • Growing and Harvesting Cranberries
  • America's Founding Fruit

The cranberry is one of only three cultivated fruits native to North America, and how it will fare in the future is uncertain. In America’s Founding Fruit (University Press of New England, 2014), author Susan Playfair poses the question of how cranberries and other fruits will fare in a warming climate, interviewing and speaking with growers, harvesters and experts across the United States and North America. This excerpt, which provides a look at the history of Americans growing and harvesting cranberries until present day, is from Chapter 1, “A Perfect Design.”

Growing Cranberries

In North America, if you drive past the Mayflower Lanes, Whippoorwill Paths, Beaver Dam Roads, and Honeysuckle Ways that have been created to provide frontage for newly built homes in Massachusetts’s Plymouth County, Wisconsin’s Wood County, New Jersey’s Suffolk County, or Washington’s Skagit County, you may spot a sandy road leading through underbrush. Follow it and you could find yourself in a world dedicated to growing and harvesting a small, red berry with a big role in the history and culture of the United States.

This is the little berry that kept both Native Americans and Pilgrims alive through the winter months, was considered “the choicest product of the colony” when presented to King Charles in 1677, served as Benjamin Franklin’s cure for homesickness in 1769, protected sailors on whaling ships from scurvy, was served to General Grant’s men in 1864, provided over a million pounds per year of fruit to our World War II doughboys, has been a staple served at countless Thanksgivings, and is currently warding off various cancers. This is America’s superfruit.

Early settlers called it a “craneberry” because its flower, angled head on upright stem, reminded them of the cranes who shared the earth and sky with them. We call it a cranberry. It is one of only three cultivated fruit native to North America. Blueberries and Concord grapes are the others. Partly because of its longer shelf life and thick waxy skin, the cranberry has the most flexibility. It can be boiled in sauces, baked in a pie, frozen in sorbet, dried in cereals or salads, pulverized in capsules, and even served smoked. A fresh cranberry can be taken out of the freezer after three years and added to your favorite muffin recipe, with no loss to the flavor or texture.

For me, cranberries always have meant the Federal Furnace Road in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Whenever I drive beneath its allée of fir trees, my anticipation begins to increase, and I wonder if the vines have changed color, if the bogs have been flooded, if the sprinklers have begun spraying water to ward off frost. Above all, I want to feel that sense of assurance that the four seasons still lend themselves to the growth of a small, red berry much as they did in the days when my great-grandparents farmed cranberries, as did their parents and grandparents. I, like so many others, seek the permanency and continuity that cranberry bogs have afforded for so long.

Interlocking branches form a canopy overhead to funnel me through the woods. Suddenly they separate to reveal an azure sky and a cranberry bog ripe for harvesting, horizontal sheets of deep red stretching before me. To my right is a graying wood screen house, as much a part of local history as the bleached bones of a prehistoric mammal are to our larger history. These buildings were where the cranberries were separated by hand and packed in wooden boxes for shipment, before Ocean Spray and the larger independent handlers took over the job of processing. Downhill from the screen house, Piney Woods, one of the oldest cranberry bogs still being harvested, nestles beneath hemlock and stately pines, its three acres just fitting the “S” curve of the road.

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