Cranberries are a common sight during the holidays. They often take center stage at holiday meals and may also be used while decorating for the holidays.
American cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon, is native to central and eastern Canada, as well as the northeastern and north-central United States (including Illinois). Native Americans used cranberries in a variety of ways, such as a dye for fabric and as medicine, as well as a food source. European settlers referred to the fruit as “crane berry,” due to the flowers resemblance to a sandhill crane. Somewhere along the line the “e” was lost and they became “cranberries.”
Contrary to popular belief, cranberries don’t grow in standing water or submerged in water. In the wild, they inhabit swamps and bogs. Like their blueberry cousins, they prefer acidic soils (pH of 4.0 – 5.5). Cranberries also need well-drained (sandy) soils that are high in organic matter and are consistently moist. So, it is possible to grow cranberries in your garden, but you’ll probably need to do some major soil amending to get the acidic, sandy conditions that cranberries like.
Cranberries area low-growing woody shrub with small evergreen leaves that will reach about eight inches in height. While the plants may be short, their long sprawling horizontal stems, or runners (stolons), grow along the soil surface, rooting at intervals and can reach six feet in length and form a dense mat. Plants will produce whitish-pink flowers in late June and early July. While cranberries can self-pollinate, they rarely do because of the structure of the flower. Instead, cranberries are usually pollinated by bees, and will produce green berries that will turn white and eventually deep red when fully ripe. Depending on weather and the cultivar it can take from 60 to 120 days for berries fully ripen.
Commercially grown cranberries are harvested from mid-September through mid-November in one of two ways. Some may be dry harvested for fresh markets. Mechanical pickers, which resemble lawn mowers, will rake the plants to remove berries. These berries will then be deposited onto conveyer belts and into burlap bags. These cranberries will then be delivered to a screening plant or a storage barn.
A majority of cranberries will be wet harvested. These cranberries are typically destined for use as juice, sweetened dried cranberries, or added to other products. Fields will be flooded (likely why people believe cranberries grow in water) with six to eight inches of water. Special tractors that have agitating, spinning rollers on them will remove the berries from the plants. Cranberries will float to the surface and the bog will be flooded to about two feet deep. The cranberries will then be corralled to one side of the field and loaded onto a conveyer and then onto a truck. In addition to making it easier to harvest berries, flooding cranberry fields also protects the fields from freezing during winter and early spring.
Wisconsin produces about 60 percent of the cranberries grown in the United States. Massachusetts produces about one-quarter of the crop and most of the remaining being grown in Oregon, Washington and New Jersey.