The berry that is associated with cranberry sauce and cranberry juice, grows from a plant in the genus Vaccinum (Species, Maccrocarpum). They are only one of three fruits native to North America, blueberries and concord grapes are the others. This genus includes a wide variety of other fruit-bearing plants from all over the world, including the blueberry, the huckleberry, and the lingonberry.
The colonists were introduced to the cranberry’s usefulness by the Native Americans who not only ate the berry raw, but also used it in sauces, puddings, breads, and a high protein, “to go” meal called pemmican. Pemmican was a mixture of dried strips of meat or fish, fat, and berries that had been pounded into paste. The mixture was then shaped into a cake and dried in the sun. Pemmican stored well and was often used as a meal on long journeys. Not only did Native Americans use fresh and dried cranberries in their diets, but the fruit was favored as an ingredient in medicines and healing teas. Poultices made from cranberries were used in the treatment of scrapes, sores, and wounds caused by poisonous arrows. Various tribes also used the juice for coloring clothing and blankets.
Taste: The characteristic tartness is indicative of its acidity, which in part comes from ascorbic acid —Vitamin C. Seafaring colonists recognized the berry’s ability to help stave off scurvy. The cranberry was a homegrown alternative to the limes used by British mariners. In this way, cranberries became an important American fruit that contributed to a European foothold on the continent, and colonial independence, as well.
Touch: Touch a fresh, whole cranberry, and you will notice not just its round form, but also its smooth, waxy texture. This waxiness contributes to the cranberry’s longevity after it is picked from the vine. This characteristic allowed it to be packed in wooden barrels and brought on long sea journeys without spoiling, as well as contributing to winter food stores.
Smell: What do you sense when you smell a whole fruit? Probably not much; the waxy coating prevents the berry from giving off much of a fragrance. Once cut, it gives off a smell that some have described as fruity or tart. Overall, compared to some fruits (bananas and oranges, for example), the smell might be considered by some to be subtle.
Sight: Take a look at a fresh, ripe cranberry and you can appreciate its attractive, vibrant shade of red, which made it a desirable and convenient source of dye. Drop it in a glass of water, and you’ll see that it floats. This enables a method of harvesting (wet-harvest) that involves flooding the marsh, and dislodging the fruit with water-reel harvesters. In this method, the berries are wrested free and float. Then they are corralled and gathered up for delivery to processing plants. These berries are traditionally used in processed cranberry products such as juices, sauces, and preserves.
Hearing: Drop a fresh, ripe, harvested whole cranberry on a wooden floor or cutting board, and you will both see and hear it bounce. Drop a bruised or damaged berry and it rolls. While this may seem only to be a fun fact, in reality it impacts how berries are sorted, and which berries are processed. Fresh, whole cranberries are highly prized. Bouncing them down stairs used to be the method for selecting these desired specimens. A familiar story recounts John “Peg Leg” Webb, a New Jersey cranberry grower who, according to cranberry lore, accidentally spilled a container of berries down his cellar steps. He observed the bad cranberries remained on the top steps while the good cranberries bounced to the bottom. This technique was the basis for wooden sorting mills that allowed good cranberries to bounce, while poor fruit rolled to the bottom of the mill and was discarded. Cranberry growers use modern technology to sort cranberries with color, ultraviolet light cameras and lazar tubes.