Our Window on Nature

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Cranberry Harvest

Filed under: Plants — Lowell Christie -- October 1, 2006 @ 4:18 pm

CranberriesWe’re addicted to gathering wild foods – especially the wild fruits of summer. Not only do they taste better than foods purchased from the supermarket, but it’s more fun when you find your own.

In June we search out wild strawberries – small but sweet. In July we stock up on raspberry jam, while August means blackberries or blueberries depending upon where we happen to be. That’s not all – September is the time to replenish our supply of grape jelly, while October means apples picked free from long-abandoned orchards.

But we look forward most to the first frosts of November, for it is these frosts that sweeten the cranberry crop, tempering the tang built into these bogland berries. And while never particularly common, cranberries can be found growing across much of the United States.

When you speak of cranberries, you have to define your terms. There are actually three true species of cranberries growing in North America, along with an unrelated variety that tastes about the same. The small or European cranberry grows both in the far north and in Europe. The large or American cranberry (that’s the one grown commercially) appears in the right habitat throughout much of the northern part of the United States. And in dry, rocky soil you can search for the Mountain cranberry.

In some areas where these three species do not appear, you may be able to find the Highbush cranberry. It’s of a different family, but the fruit looks and tastes much the same, except for a large pit that must be removed before eating. These four varieties of cranberries live in slightly different habitats, and you can find at least one of them within the borders of 32 of the lower 48 states – if you know where to look.

Our introduction to wild cranberries came at Cape Cod National Seashore when we joined a cranberry walk with the resident naturalist. After climbing over the sand dunes and ducking under straggly pines, we arrived at a wide and damp depression in the sand. It provided precisely the conditions needed by the American cranberry – a boggy peat swamp. The plants spread out in a low, tangled mat at our feet. And they were absolutely covered with cranberries.

Both the leaves and the berries were reddish, a clue that the fruit was ripe for picking. Some species of cranberry ripen as early as August, but the first frosts improve the berries by cutting down on their sourness. And these same frosts make the cranberries somewhat easier to find, since they transform the fields into a blaze of autumn.

On that walk we picked only enough cranberries to whet our appetites. Obviously the ranger didn’t want our group to harvest all the fruit or there would be none left for later tours, but she gave us directions to a bog nearby where we were welcome to harvest all we wanted. That is step one in learning how to find cranberries the easy way – ask someone familiar with the area.

Since cranberries require rather special soil conditions, most cranberry bogs are quite small and, therefore, hard to find. If you do a lot of walking in wild, wet areas of the northland, you’re sure to run across some eventually, but the best way is to talk to people in cranberry country. Don’t worry if the information is several years old – cranberries are perennial, so once you find the bog it should provide you with cranberries for years to come.

Picking the cranberries is easy work since the plants grow only a few inches high and are usually packed close together. All you need is a bucket and a cranberry patch, although a towel or a piece of plastic to kneel on helps keep your knees dry. The only precaution is to watch out for poison ivy and hungry bears. Like humans, the bears like to eat the berries, while poison ivy likes to grow in the same type of soil.

When you have a chance to pick cranberries, don’t settle for a handful. Most cookbooks contain numerous recipes for these versatile little fruits, and those you don’t use immediately keep well in the refrigerator or freezer. In fact, for us that presents a problem. When we find a good cranberry patch in autumn, we have to limit the amount of perishable foods we buy for the next several months. All the available space in our small RV refrigerator is given over to cranberries. We add them to bread and muffins, or stir them into yogurt or Jell-O. After a really good harvest we’re still using fresh cranberries well after New Year’s Day.

If you like cranberries but don’t have a friend to show you a cranberry bog, or if you want more information on where to look for this fruit, we suggest that you buy one of the fine guides to edible wild plants that are on the market. Two that we find useful are: Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants by Bradford Angier and Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons.


For More Information:
Cranberry Recipes

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