PLANT OF THE WEEK
Dr. T. Ombrello - UCC Biology Department
The Rubies of the Pines
Common Names: American Cranberry, Large Cranberry
Scientific Name: Vaccinium macrocarpon
Explanation of Scientific Name:
Vaccinium - ancient Latin name of the Blueberry
macrocarpon - large fruited
to a recent national survey, nine out of ten Americans look forward to seeing
cranberries on the traditional Thanksgiving table. However, few of us know what they are or where they come
from. A close relative of
blueberries, the cranberry is a native North American, found from Newfoundland
south to North Carolina and west to Minnesota.
Cranberries have a very specific
habitat requirement that limits where they will grow.
A sandy soil rich in organic matter along the edge of a slow moving
acidic stream or bog provides just what they need to thrive.
The plant itself is a small evergreen shrub that trails along the ground
with 6 to 8 inch long upright branches bearing small (3/4 inch) oblong leaves.
In late spring, small clusters of 1/4-inch long pink flowers bloom,
followed by berries that mature in the fall.
Vaccinium macrocarpon gets its common name because of its
flowers. Early colonists saw the
flowers and flower buds resembling the neck, head, and long beak of the great
sandhill crane that often nested in cranberry areas, and called the plant the
then it has been shortened to cranberry.
Native Americans were utilizing
the cranberry long before the Europeans discovered North America.
Know as “sasemineash” in what is now New Jersey, and as “ibimi” (bitter berry) in what is now Massachusetts, the
Indians considered the cranberry a symbol of peace. Used as a food, the cranberry was eaten raw, cooked, or
mashed together with dried meat to make a long-lasting pressed cake know as “pemmican”. Medicinal
salves and dyes for clothing were also made from the berries.
No one knows for sure if the Indians shared cranberries with the
Massachusetts colonists at the first Thanksgiving in October 1621, but the
Indians were undoubtedly harvesting them at the time.
Colonial sailors made immediate
use of the cranberry to prevent the dreaded disease scurvy.
We now know that scurvy is the result of a dietary deficiency of Vitamin
C, and that cranberries are a rich source of this vitamin.
The sailors, however, knew that the cranberries not only prevented the
disease, but also could be easily stored for long ocean voyages.
Packed in barrels with water, they will last for many months. American
sailing ships carried water-packed cranberries much the way British ships
carried limes for their sailors. The
nickname “Limey” for British sailors owes its origin to this
practice. Cranberries last for long
periods of time because they produce their own preservative, benzoic acid.
Fruits still good enough to eat may be found on cranberry vines in the
spring, left over from the previous fall.
The Indians taught the pilgrims how
to harvest the cranberries by hand. This
was soon improved upon with the invention of a rake-toothed wooden tool known as
a cranberry scoop. Since no one
owned the vines, laws had to be enacted in Massachusetts, New Jersey and
Wisconsin imposing fines if cranberries were harvested before a specific date
(when the berries turned red). A
Provincetown, Massachusetts’s ordinance read as follows:
should be found getting cranberries before ye twentyeth of September exceeding one
quart should be liable to pay one dollar and have the berrys taken away.”
In Wisconsin, cranberry
“poachers” were fined $50 if caught harvesting before September 20th.
Cranberries were picked from the wild into the 19th century,
with most of the harvest exported to Europe.
The practice of growing
cranberries in man-made bogs began in 1816 in Massachusetts, and they are grown
in much the same way today. Large
areas are leveled smooth with ditches along the sides and surrounded by earthen
dikes. This permits the regulation of water levels to match what
occurs in natural streams and bogs. Cranberry
stem cuttings are then planted into the bog, and 3 to 4
years later they are producing fruit. The
first man-made cranberry bog in New Jersey was constructed in 1835 by Benjamin
Thomas of Burr’s Mills in Burlington County.
After the Civil War, cranberry growing became a big business as a result
of the widespread use of man-made bogs.
Man-made bogs are flooded for
insect control, some types of harvesting, and in winter to allow a layer of ice
to develop over the bog to form an insulating layer.
Since it takes 300,000 gallons of water to flood an acre of bog, a water
source (reservoir, lake, or stream) must be readily available.
Many growers have areas two times the size of their bogs devoted to
Wisconsin is the largest cranberry producing state. Massachusetts is second in production, followed by New
Jersey. Our state produces as much
as 58 million pounds of cranberries a year worth over 30 million dollars on 3700
acres located in the Pine Barrens regions of Burlington, Ocean, and Atlantic
counties. The nickname for
cranberries in New Jersey, “Rubies
of the Pines”, reflects their exclusive
cultivation in the sandy soil and acidic waters of the Pine Barrens.
Cranberry production and yield is
directly tied to the efficiency of pollination that occurs during the ten days
the flowers are open. Wild
bumblebees are the best pollinators, but their populations are unreliable. Honeybee hives are often brought to the bogs during flowering
to insure good pollination and subsequent fruit set. Honeybees, however, prefer many wildflowers to cranberries,
so the honeybee population must be high in order to have each cranberry flower
visited by a bee.
There are currently two major
methods of cranberry harvesting that yield 100 to 200 barrels per acre.
A barrel is the traditional unit of cranberry measurement.
It is equal to 100 pounds. The
“wet” method is used extensively in New Jersey for
cranberries destined for processing into juice and sauce.
This technique involves flooding the bogs 12 to 18 inches above the
vines, and then running mechanical water reels (that look like giant egg
beaters) over the vines to shake the berries loose.
The berries have air pockets called “bladders” and a
waxy surface to prevent water absorption, so they float.
The berries are pushed to one side of the bog, and then loaded by
conveyor into trucks. The “dry” method, practiced extensively in Massachusetts for
fresh market and some processing, involves the use of a machine with “teeth” that pulls the berries from the vine and then
conveys them into pallet boxes. The
berries are of higher quality for fresh market sales, but 30% of the crop is
lost when berries fall to the ground under the vines. The harvested berries must
be sorted to separate the good from the bad. The early settlers did this by “bouncing”
the berries. Those that were
dropped and bounced up were good. Those
that did not bounce were discarded. Even
today, cranberries are subjected to the bounce test using special wooden
barriers before being accepted for packaging.
Since 1984, an annual Cranberry
Harvest Festival has been held in Chatsworth, NJ (known as the
“capital” of the New Jersey Pine Barrens) on an October
weekend. Among the activities are
demonstrations of the varied uses for cranberries. Cranberry ice cream, cakes, preserves, pies, and muffins, in
addition to an extensive array of cranberry based juices are served.
Cranberry based juices have become popular recently, with over 100
million gallons a year produced in the US and used by over 50% of our
The most traditional product made
of cranberries is cranberry sauce. Elizabeth
Lee, a cranberry grower from New Egypt in Ocean County, is credited with being
the first person to make this delicious sauce in New Jersey.
In 1917 she boiled some bruised, un-salable berries with sugar and spices
to make the jelly-like product. When
she first tried to market cranberry sauce, there was little interest in it.
But within a few years it caught on, and she formed her own company.
She eventually merged with a cranberry company in Massachusetts that had
also been marketing cranberry sauce, and this became the basis for what is now
the largest cranberry cooperative – Ocean Spray.
new with cranberries? White
cranberry juice, made from immature (not yet red) cranberries, has recently been
marketed. The Rutgers Blueberry and Cranberry Research Center, near Chatsworth,
New Jersey is conducting a number of research projects aimed at improving the
cranberry. Researchers there are
developing a “parthenocarpic” strain that will not need pollination in order to
form berries, strains resistant to root and fruit diseases, and strains with
various fruit colors. Some day in
the future it may be possible to buy “Rubies of the Pines” that are blue or black.
Finally, what our mothers always
told us about cranberries is true. A
recent Rutgers University study has confirmed what was long suspected – that
cranberries are good for urinary tract health.
A tannin found in the fruit, proanthocyanidin, inhibits the bacteria
responsible for urinary tract infections.
A Cranberry plant, with fruit, growing in one of Union County College's greenhouses.