Everything you never knew about cranberries

It’s that time of year! The holidays bring an abundance of food, warmth, reflection, and connection. Hopefully this is true for you this year. Many of us are apart from our loved ones and are perhaps doing more reflection now than in years past.

My Thanksgiving certainly looked different this year. Although I was by myself, I didn’t feel lonely. FaceTime, Zoom, texts and calls with my wonderful friends and family kept my spirits up all day. I also made sure to keep myself busy by cooking lots of delicious food in addition to just moving through the day with doing what felt right at the moment. Generally, this is something we should all strive to do everyday, even if its for an hour. However, on days with a lot of meaning attached to them, it feels even more necessary.

Since I did things on my own this year, it meant I could make exactly what I wanted and when. This included my favorite Thanksgiving side dish: cranberry sauce! I have been a canned cranberry sauce person for pretty much all my life. I would even buy multiple cans so could have it in my pantry to eat throughout the year because I loved it so much. Two years ago though that all changed. I went to a pick-your-own cranberry bog and I finally realized what I was missing out on. Fresh cranberry sauce is so simple to make and it brings so much brightness to any plate. I look forward to this time of year even more now that I know I can incorporate these plump red gems into baked goods, make them into a sauce, or that I can just pop them in my mouth if I am lucky enough to come across some growing in the wild. So in honor of my favorite Ericaceous snack, I highlight some uses of the cranberry and its history in North America!

Natural History

Large or American Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) grows abundantly in the temperate and boreal climates of New England and Canada. Although more numerous and more efficient to harvest in bogs, cranberries can spread as ground cover, rooting in the cracks of mountains or really anywhere there is acidic, wet, sandy/gravely soil. The curve of the slender stem and flower reminded European naturalists of the neck and head of a crane, suggesting the name, ‘craneberry’, which has been shortened to cranberry. Their leaves are evergreen, flowers bloom June through August, and their berries are ripe and edible September through October.

Flowering Vaccinium macrocarpon (credit: Aaron Carlson).

Uses and Cultural Significance

Cranberries were perhaps the most important food source to Native Americans. Long before colonists landed on the shores of New England, the Wampanoag Nation harvested cranberries from peaty bogs and marshes for over 12,000 years. They incorporated cranberries into fish cakes to use as fuel for physical endurance and even created the first cranberry sauce! Poet, lawyer, and chronicler of the French exploration of Acadia (Maine and the Maritimes in Canada) Marc Lescarbot (c. 1570-1641) observed Natives eating a type of cranberry sauce with meats. Colonists later created something similar to what we now consume when the sugar trade made its way to New England. For centuries, the Aquinnah Wampanoags of Martha’s Vineyard have honored the Creator for providing a fruit so essential to their diet by a dancing, singing, eating, and socializing on Cranberry Day which is now celebrated on the second Tuesday of October. Cranberries were equally important to early explorers and colonists too. The fruits were valued for their most essential nutritional characteristic, vitamin C, which prevented scurvy and dysentery on long journeys at sea.

Picking cranberries in a Maine bog. These were cultivated and larger than what you would normally find growing wild (credit: Rachel Stearns).

Today, cranberries are medicinally used for the chemical compound proanthocyanin which prevents adhesion of bacteria to the lining of the bladder and gut, thereby preventing urinary tract infections. Cranberries have also been studied extensively and are currently used for their anti-cancer properties, diabetes treatment and prevention, and have been shown to have cardiovascular health and anti-inflammatory benefits. Most famously, cranberries are commercially cultivated in artificially flooded bogs for consumption around the dinner table this time of year. Massachusetts and Wisconsin are the world’s leaders in crop yield, accounting for 61% and 26% of production in the United States, respectively. In total, the US produced nearly 7.6 million barrels of cranberries in 2019 according to the Cranberry Marketing Committee. Like apples, there is not just one type of cranberry. Today, there are over 100 varieties of cranberries cultivated in North America! So whether you get your fix from a can off the shelf, in a bag from the produce section, or straight from the bog, you can be assured you are eating something uniquely American that has been enjoyed by many for thousands of years.

A Word of Thanks

I would like to acknowledge the Wabanaki Confederacy, whose land was stolen from European colonizers. The version of the first Thanksgiving that many of us grew up learning about is unsurprisingly historically inaccurate. Reclaiming the narrative, Indigenous people declared Thanksgiving Day the National Day of Mourning in 1970 to remember their enslaved, dying from diseases brought on by settlers, and forced off their land ancestors. It is because of Indigenous people like those of the Wabanaki Confederacy, whose land on which I live, that we have benefited from cranberries for over 400 of years.


Foster, S. & Duke, J.A. (2014). Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Native Fruit: Cranberry for all Seasons (Smithsonian)

The US Cranberry Harvest Explained in Four Charts (National Geographic)

Cranberry Production: A Guide for Massachusetts (University of Massachusetts Extension)

Cranberry Marketing Committee

National Day of Mourning (Boston Globe)

Native Land webmap

Categories Educational

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