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.
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.