Nothing says fall like a batch of cranberries

One of the more popular fruits of autumn is the cranberry — an almost indispensable part of Thanksgiving dinners throughout the U.S. and Canada and of many European winter festivals.

Cranberries are a favorite of late fall and early winter

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

There are many species of cranberry (Vaccinium spp.) that are found throughout the Northern Hemisphere in swampy, acidic soils. The cranberry is a small evergreen shrub or vine that is part of the Ericaceous family, a grouping that includes blueberry, huckleberry, bilberry and cowberry. The name “cranberry” is derived from the European name “craneberry,” given to this plant because the flowers resemble the neck and head of a crane.

The range of cranberry extends from the mountainous regions of Tennessee to the eastern Canadian provinces. Cranberry farming in the U.S. first began in the 1820s in Cape Cod.

At first, this agriculture was done manually, but it became more mechanized over time. Today most cultivation is done in specially prepared beds that resemble a shallow water impoundment. These beds are irrigated during the summer, then flooded during the fall when harvest time approaches.

About 95 percent of cranberries are harvested by the wet method, and these berries are used for juice, sauce, baking, or any application where a damaged fruit is acceptable. The remaining raw cranberries, available at the market, are harvested by the dry method, which is less mechanized and leaves a more intact berry.Wisconsin is the leading producer of cranberries in the U.S., followed closely by Massachusetts. Most cultivated cranberries are from the vine; the berries are white and harvested after they turn red.

The raw berry is too bitter for most tastes, so it is typically sweetened before eating. Cranberries contain polyphenol antioxidants, and are considered a “super fruit.” Ingesting cranberries has many health benefits, including cardiovascular, benefits to the immune system, and the prevention of certain cancers. It is believed that regular consumption of cranberry juice helps fight plaque buildup on teeth, reduces kidney stones, and can help reduce mental stress.

Nature Note for 12/11/2016