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Volume 38 Issue 21 • Sept 18-Oct 1, 2008
now in our 38th season

Nantucket's Fall Bounty

by Dr. Sarah D. Oktay
Managing Director UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station

There are many wonderful food stuffs growing on Nantucket that ripen in late summer and early fall such as beach plums and fox grapes. One of my favorites is the subject of this week’s column: cranberries. 

The American Cranberry or Large Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) is a close relative of blueberries and a native North American species found from Newfoundland south to North Carolina and west to Minnesota. 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.  The berries are large in comparison to the leaves and white at first, slowly turning red and even a dark red to black color as they ripen.  Undamaged cranberry plants can last many years (almost indefinitely) and some bogs in Massachusetts are more than 150 years old.

 There are a total of four species of cranberries: Vaccinium erythrocarpum, Vaccinium macrocarpon, Vaccinium microcarpum, and Vaccinium oxycoccos (“small cranberry”) with macrocarpon (the type we normally eat) and oxycoccos most common in Massachusetts.  Cranberries acquired their common name because early colonists thought the flowers, petals, and flower buds resembled the neck, head, and long beak of the great sandhill crane that often nested in cranberry areas, and called the plant the “craneberry.”  Cranberries’ relation to blueberries is epitomized in its Latin name Vaccinium which is the Latin name for blueberry or whortleberry.  The species name “macrocarpon” means “large fruited.” 

Native Americans were utilizing the cranberry long before the Europeans discovered North America.  Known as “ibimi” (bitter berry) in what is now Massachusetts, and called “Sassamanash” by some tribes, the Native Americans 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.  Sailors also carried wet-packed cranberries to help ward off scurvy, which is a disease that occurs as a result of a vitamin C deficiency.

The practice of growing cranberries in man-made bogs began in Dennis (Cape Cod), Massachusetts by the American Revolutionary war veteran Captain Henry Hall in1816, and they are grown in much the same way today.  Large areas are leveled smooth with ditches dug 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 produce fruit.  Both sand and water are needed to create a properly functioning bog.  Sand is used to anchor the plants, reduce insect infestations, transmit nutrients, and absorb decaying organic matter.  Water is not only used for flooding the bogs for harvesting and providing water for the plants to absorb, but it is also necessary to protect the plants in the spring and winter from frost and freezing.

Cranberry production and yield is directly tied to the efficiency of pollination that occurs during the 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.  The current honeybee crisis around the U.S. is an obvious worry for cranberry growers.

From the Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s web site (www.nantucketconservation.org) we learn that the large bog off of Milestone Road was once the largest in the world.

The Nantucket Conservation Foundation's stewardship of the Island's two remaining commercial cranberry bogs began in 1968, when Roy Larsen, Walter Beinecke, Jr., and Arthur Dean joined forces to purchase the assets of what was then known as Nantucket Cranberries and incorporated the Milestone Road Cranberry Bog's total of nearly 1,000 acres into the holdings of the Foundation.  The Windswept Cranberry Bog, a man-made bog built at the turn of the century, was purchased by the Foundation in August of 1980.  This property totals 105 acres of marsh, woodland, and bog.  Forty acres are being actively cultivated, while the remaining acres are set aside for conservation use.

The Foundation cultivates two types of cranberries; the Howes variety (a larger oblong, medium red variety which is picked from early October into November was first cultivated in Massachusetts in 1843 by Eli Howes.  The NCF also grows the Early Black variety (small and reddish black in color) which is ready for picking sooner than the Howes and is ripe at the end of September under the proper conditions.  It is also important to note that the Windswept Bog is now an organic bog.

Fresh cranberries can be frozen and will keep up to 9 months.  Long considered a staple of Thanksgiving is cranberry sauce, a type of compote that is very easy to make (just boil fresh cranberries with sugar, some lemon juice or orange zest and spices like cinnamon or vanilla).  Cranberry sauce was the first Thanksgiving dish I learned to make when I was 9, I loved to hear the berries pop when they boiled.  Cranberry sauce came into the picture via General Ulysses S. Grant who ordered it served to the troops during the siege of Petersburg in 1864.  Cranberry sauce was first commercially canned in 1912 by the Cape Cod Cranberry Company who marketed it as "Ocean Spray Cape Cod Cranberry Sauce."  A merger with other growers evolved into the well-known Ocean Spray corporation now famous for their cranberry products. 

The entertaining Ocean Spray commercials bear out the fact that cranberries are a healthy addition to our diet.  A recent Rutgers University study confirmed what was long suspected:  that cranberries are good for urinary tract health.  A tannin found in the fruit, proanthocyanidin, inhibits the adhesion of E.coli, a bacteria often responsible for urinary tract infections.  Cranberry research (source and references found at: www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=145) has shown this is just one of the more commonly known benefits of drinking cranberry juice.  Other benefits from cranberry consumption range from a reduction in cavities, a high natural source of cancer fighting antioxidants, as an antiviral agent on par with some antibiotics, as a gastrointestinal aid like some probiotics, an ability to lower LDL levels of cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol), and prevention of kidney stones!  In fact, I’ll be back in a minute after having some cranberry juice. Ahhh, that’s better.

Cranberries are a major commercial crop in the U.S. states of Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin, as well as in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, New Brunswick, Ontario, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Quebec.  According to the Economic Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture, Wisconsin is the leading producer of cranberries, with nearly half of U.S. production.  Massachusetts is the second largest U.S. producer, with more than one-third of total domestic production.  Cranberries were originally harvested by hand, which was very labor intensive.  In the early 1900s a cranberry scoop was invented which greatly speeded up the harvesting process. The steel toothed boxes allowed the plants to be combed free of the berries although they were often too heavy to be used by women or children.  After World War II, a few types of mechanical pickers such as the Western Picker and the Darlington Picker were used to speed up the process, but, although the vines survived the harvesting methods, as much as 20% of the fruit could be bruised.  A great deal of land was cleared in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and other East Coast states for cranberry harvesting which resulted in the loss of wildlife habitat and swampland.

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 for cranberries destined for processing into juice and sauce.  This technique involves flooding 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 with wooden booms, and then loaded by conveyor or vacuum suction into trucks.  The “dry” method, practiced extensively in Massachusetts for berries for the fresh market, 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 up to 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 (which showed they were not over-ripe) 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 in devices like the NCF’s Bailey Separator, where the berries drop vertically through a series of seven compartments.

You can learn more about our local harvest, see a Bailey Separator, and have a great time at this year’s Nantucket Cranberry Festival on Saturday, October 11, 2008 from 11 am-4 pm.  Information for this article was taken from Wikipedia, the Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s website and at www.plymouthcolonywines.com/cranberry.html.

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