Have You Tasted the Bouncing Berry?
By Awake! writer in Canada
THE farmer spreads sulfur on the ground, making the soil more acidic. In autumn, as the crop ripens, he floods the fields. After the harvest, he deliberately drops the fruit to see if it bounces.
Has the farmer gone mad? On the contrary, his seemingly destructive actions ensure that his produce is of the highest possible quality. Cranberries are his crop. Would you like to know more about these hardy berries?
Berries From a Bog
When Europeans first arrived on the northeast coast of North America, a trading commodity the native inhabitants offered was a red berry with a refreshing, tart flavor. The Pequot Indians, who lived in the area now known as Cape Cod, called the fruit i-bimi, or “bitter fruit.” The Pilgrims called it the craneberry, possibly because the stem and flower of the plant resemble the neck and head of a crane. Additionally, the berry was a favorite of the local flocks of cranes, and this may also be the reason for the name. At any rate, the name was soon shortened to cranberry.
Indians gathered cranberries from low-lying peat bogs. The damp, decaying vegetation in these bogs made the soil unusually acidic, discouraging the growth of most plants. Cranberries, though, thrive in such soils. The low-growing, strawberrylike vines flourished from as far south as modern-day Virginia to as far north as Canada.
In 1680, Mahlon Stacy, a settler in New Jersey, described the berries to his brother living in England. He wrote: “The cranberries, much like cherries for color and bigness, may be kept until fruit comes in again. An excellent sauce is made of them for venison, turkeys and other great fowl and they are better to make tarts than either gooseberries or cherries. We have them bro[ugh]t to our homes by the Indians in great plenty.”
Food, Medicine, and Preservative in One
The Native Americans utilized the cranberry’s natural preserving qualities. They made a food called pemmican, which was a mixture of dried meat or fish ground together with cranberries. The mass was shaped into cakes and dried in the sun. During the long winter months, the cakes provided a balanced meal of proteins and vitamins. The berry preserves well because it is loaded with pectin. It is also rich in vitamin C. Thus, in years gone by, scurvy-prone sailors bought barrels of cranberries to take with them on long voyages.
The Indians also used the cranberry as medicine, mixing it with cornmeal and placing it on wounds to inhibit blood poisoning. Recent medical studies indicate that drinking cranberry juice may prevent some urinary tract infections by stopping the offending bacteria from adhering to the tract walls.
Why Called the Bouncing Berry?
If you cut a ripe cranberry in half, you will notice four air sacs inside. These bladders prove useful to commercial cranberry growers in two ways. First, instead of laboriously picking the berries by hand, growers can flood the fields, mechanically agitate the vines—causing the ripe berries to break loose—and rely on the little air sacs to make the berries float.* They then scoop the berries from the surface and sort them.
The second benefit of the air sacs was discovered by cranberry growers in the late 1800’s. Legend has it that a grower accidentally dropped a bucket of berries down a staircase and was astounded to notice that the best berries bounced all the way to the bottom of the stairs, whereas the soft or rotten fruit stuck to the treads. The air sacs in the prime-quality berries allowed them to bounce like pumped-up tires. The inferior fruit behaved like flat tires.
In 1881 the first machines appeared that took advantage of the berry’s ability to bounce. Today, separating machines still use that same method, bouncing sound berries over a barrier and collecting them for sale as whole fruit. The soft ones drop through the machine and are used for juice or jellies.
In specially prepared bogs across the northeastern and northwestern United States and in Canada, farmers produce more than 550 million pounds [250 million kg] of cranberries in a single year. If you have never tasted this tart berry, why not try it? The fruit is bursting with vitamins and minerals, and it is full of antioxidants that may help protect you against heart disease and cancer. They could even put some bounce into your step.
The practice of flooding the cranberry bogs at harvesttime has fostered the misconception that the berries grow underwater.
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A Uniquely North American Berry?
Traditionally, cranberries are part of the meal eaten on Thanksgiving Day, which is held on the fourth Thursday of November in the United States and on the second Monday of October in Canada. According to legend, in 1621, Indians brought cranberries along when they attended the first Thanksgiving, a three-day festival of feasting and recreation sponsored by the governor of Plymouth Colony, William Bradford. Since the berry is steeped in tradition and cranberries are one of the few native North American species that are grown commercially, many think the fruit is unique to this continent.
However, the small-fruited cranberry (V. oxycoccus) grows not only in North America but also in Asia and northern and central Europe. The berry’s contribution to cuisine is not unique to North America. The Encyclopædia Britannica states: “Cranberry sauce and jelly have come to be thought of as uniquely American, but the Scandinavians hold in high esteem their native lingonberry (V. vitis-idaea), the berry of which is similar to, but spicier than, the American cranberry [V. macrocarpon].”
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Courtesy Charles Armstrong, Cranberry Professional, Univ. of Maine Cooperative Extension, USA
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Cranberry harvesting in a flooded bog
Keith Weller/Agricultural Research Service, USDA
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White cranberry harvesting
Inset photos: Courtesy of Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc.