Monday, October 28, 2013

Wild Cranberries Identified

Wild large cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) are native North American plants found in eastern Canada, the Northeastern New England states, the upper Midwestern states, and south to North Carolina. They grow in wet, acidic soils, often in bogs and and swampy spots, in pine barrens, and along coastal areas. Historically they were eaten by Native Americans, who called them sassamanash. Currently, cranberries are a major commercial crop for several regions, including Massachusetts and New Jersey as well as several Canadian provinces.

Our small patch grows near a boggy area in a mixed forest, in a small field area that floods seasonally in the spring with rainwater. It took us two seasons to observe the growing cycle of the wild cranberry, and we got to see the habitat in many different stages, from totally flooded to completely dry.

The first time we found the cranberry plants, I was a little surprised by their small stature. I was expecting something more like a blueberry, but these plants are very small, trailing shrubs, growing close to the ground. They create roots at their leaf nodes, and many stems are connected by underground rhizomes, creating dense mats of vine-like growth. The slightly woody stems are slender and hairless, branching rarely, and growing about 12" tall. The leaves are leathery and evergreen, 1/2" ovals with blunt tips, and are pale green on the undersides.

Flowers appear in the late spring, after some of the flood waters of spring rains have drained slowly from the acidic soil in the small field. We visited several times this spring to try to photograph the flowers, but it was very flooded in the area this year, and we had a hard time finding the small flowers, which are pollinated by bees. They have four reflexed, light pink petals with a golden-beige stamen that points downward. Many of the flowers we found were actually blooming underwater, since the water had not receded yet, and I wonder if that contributed to the smaller harvest we made this season. Gillian didn't mind exploring the flooded field, poking along the edges of the woods looking for immature berries or flowers. This field also has lots of native sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) growing in it, and is surrounded by white pines, indicating the sandy, acidic soil composition.

The fruit starts growing through the summer and ripens in the autumn. Large wild cranberries grow from a wiry, short stem along the leaf axils. The fruit seems almost comically large in comparison to the stem of the plants, but the fruit are also incredibly light since they are hollow. One to three berries grow from each woody stem, and they are fairly easy to pick. Cranberries ripen from pink to red, and are acidic and tart tasting. Inside are several very small, light brown seeds sprinkled throughout the partially hollow interior, along with the pinkish-white flesh that is spongy and light. We pick a few buckets, rinse them off, and freeze most of the cranberries to use all year long. The size of the berries are comparable to commercial cranberries, and they can be used in all the same ways: cranberry sauce, in muffins and pancakes, dehydrated, in pies, and juiced with a bit of apples for sweetness. Cranberries are high in pectin and vitamin C, plus beta carotene and anthocyanins, and can contribute to healthy kidney and urinary tract functions. The berries can persist through frost, and we found some of last year's berries in the very early spring that survived the winter. They are crisp when fresh, and soften once they have been frozen.


Josh Fecteau said...

What beautiful photos of such delicious fruit!

Cubits said...

What a great site! I never thought to look for wild cranberries but now I need to!

~mel said...

We live near a commercial cranberry bog. After harvest the owners give away berries that the pickers missed :) How great is that! I've also harvested the wild one's too. My first attempt to make Craisins (dehydrated cranberries) was a big flop; but all was not lost. I put them into a food processor and turned them into fruit leather, aka. Cranberry Jerky

Anonymous said...

beautiful photos! i found your blog because i found what i thought might be wild cranberries while hiking in rhode island. sure enough...!

Anonymous said...

I found wild cranberries but unsure on when to pick they are half red and half yellow. Will they ripen once picked or leave them till red.My only experience is with bagged ones.HELP

The 3 Foragers said...

If it is possible, let them ripen further. It is still about one month before we will go out to harvest in Connecticut.