Garden Clippings: Cranberries

Cranberries are a traditional part of the Thanksgiving holiday, but how much do you really know about them?

| November 2007

  • Cranberries
    Beautiful cranberries make tasty dishes, including the traditional cranberry sauce that graces many American tables on Thanksgiving.

  • Cranberries

Cranberry: An American original

Before long, my plate will be piled high with all the fixin's - turkey, stuffing, potatoes and gravy, pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce. It's a traditional meal for a traditional American holiday. I've often wondered why cranberries were part of the tradition; after all, many people don't like the taste of them. I'm not a cranberry lover, but I do partake of the berry on this occasion - because it's traditional.

Vaccinium macrocarpon, or American cranberry, is truly an American plant, native only to North America. It grows from the eastern provinces of Canada, down the East Coast of the United States to North Carolina and west to Michigan and Minnesota. Bogs and swampy areas of these regions are where the plant can be found growing wild.

American cranberry is a trailing perennial vine with evergreen leaves. Because of its native habitat, it stands to reason that the cranberry prefers a moist root system. It grows in an acid soil, one that has a pH of 4.5 to 5.

It's amazing to me, as a horticulturist, that fields are flooded twice a year in cranberry production. The plants are submerged during the harvest. By flooding the plants then, the vines can be shaken to free the berries. The berries float to the surface, are seined off - harvested using seine nets - and sent to market. During the winter, the plants are encapsulated with ice to insulate them and allow them to over-winter.

Northern regions of the country are where the American cranberry grows best; the plant does not like the summer heat of the South. Even having said this, I know that the cranberry can be grown in my native Kansas - maybe as more of a novelty than anything else.

To grow cranberries in a warmer climate, I recommend containers. Mix half soil and half peat moss for the growing medium. This mix will allow moisture retention as well as providing a low pH balance. Cranberries prefer a soil that is too acidic for most landscape plants. Planting cranberries in containers also enables a gardener to move the plants to a cool area during the hot part of the day; they like the sun, but not the heat.

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