The Garden Muse — The cranberry: A holiday favorite

Published 4:26 pm Friday, December 9, 2022

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The American Cranberry (vaccinium macrocarpon) is a native North American evergreen shrub that thrives in boggy environments and has been used for centuries in medicine and food preparation. There are approximately 150 different species of cranberry plants. Here in America, they are commercially grown in five states, Wisconsin (top producer grows nearly half of all this country’s berries), Massachusetts (grows about a third), New Jersey, Washington, and Oregon are all small producers.

Originally named Crane-berry due to the shrub’s delicate white / pink flower resembling the head of the cranes that inhabited the bogs where they grew. The cranberries flowers/fruit grow on trailing woody vines up to six feet in length. The home gardener can grow cranberry plants in their garden if three very important conditions are met. Cranberries like their relative the blueberry require acidic soil, adequate moisture, and 1000-2500 hours of Chill temperatures between 32-45 degrees Fahrenheit to produce fruit. Cranberries are a slow growing ground cover plant and young plants can be choked out by competing grass and weed growth. They like Full sun and a very fertile growing medium. Their root system is very shallow, growing in the top six inches or so of soil.

Many cranberry varieties are biennial and slow growing, taking two seasons to produce the wonderfully tart bright red berries most of us love and expect to see on the holiday table. Contrary to what many believe, cranberry plants do not grow in flooded fields. They are usually commercially grown in wet bogs that can be flooded (waist deep) to protect plants from frigid cold temperatures and winds during the winter. Flooding can also be used as a tool to make the berries float while harvesting.

The cranberry is believed to have been introduced to the Pilgrims by the Native Americans. The cranberry’s plant compounds are rich in antioxidants, anti-inflammatory & anti-cancer health benefits. They are now considered a “superfood” in the medical community. Historically the cranberries fruit has been used to treat wounds, disease of the bladder, stomach, and liver as well as treating diabetes and many other ailments of the human body.

It is important to note that when any plant is used to treat illness or consumed as a food, due caution should always be taken and one should always be aware that adverse effects may be experienced by doing so. Any Person taking prescription medication, especially those who take blood thinners, Aspirin, and other medications that are designed to be broken down by the liver should speak with their physician before consuming cranberry.

Dawn Conrad is a Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener, Herbal enthusiast, Writer and Fiber Artist. She can be contacted at