Cranberries at Christmas

Fresh Cranberries. Mariluna, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Serving Christmas turkey without Cranberry sauce seems unthinkable. Many families just reach for the contents of a shop-bought jar. It is possible to make your own simple, fresh Cranberry sauce. My personal favourite is a Cranberry sauce with Port. Various recipes appear at the end of this blog.

Native to North America

Cranberries are native to North America. American Cranberries or Large Cranberries bear the Latin name Vaccinium marcocarpon. The native European Cranberry is much smaller with the Latin name of Vaccinium oxycoccus. The Cranberry is a low-growing, woody plant that inhabits bogs. There is some speculation that the plant’s curved and slender stems were likened to a crane’s neck. This led to the common name of Craneberry that elided over time to Cranberry. This explanation does not have widespread acceptance.

Native Americans ate Cranberries both fresh and dried as a staple in their diet. They also pounded them with meat to form Pemmican –– a nutritious and high-energy food that was later adopted by European explorers in the Arctic and Antarctica. Cranberries contain a natural preservative that helps them store well for months without deteriorating. They were introduced to early settlers and sailors. By 1689, they became an important part of Thanksgiving celebrations.

Wet Harvesting

Today, most imported Cranberries come from cultivation rather than wild-harvesting. Cranberries are grown in sandy marshes that are flooded for harvesting. Ripe berries are loosened and float on top of the water. Unripe berries float deeper in the water. Thus, it is easy for processing machines to scoop the ripe berries from the top of the water.

The separation principle traces back to an earlier technique. Cranberries used to be tipped down a flight of stairs. Good berries bounced and reached the bottom; bad berries remained on the steps. The best Cranberries were stored in barrels of plain water during long sea voyages. Sailors ate them to guard against scurvy.

Frisian Cranberries

While most Large Cranberries are imported from North America, they can be found in Europe. It is claimed that in around 1845, a barrel containing American Cranberries was blown off a ship’s deck during a North Sea storm. The lost barrel washed ashore on the Frisian island of Terschelling (Netherlands). A beachcomber happened upon the barrel. He was initially delighted thinking that he had discovered a wine barrel. He was soon bitterly disappointed in the sour red berries. He threw them away into the boggy dunes. The island now has a thriving economy thanks to its naturalised Cranberries.

Map showing the Frisian or Wadden Islands off the coast of the Friesland province in the Netherlands. Map Credit: (WT-shared) Digr, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Cranberries are not just prized as a Christmas sauce accompaniment with turkey. Their juice became popular in the late 1950s. They are also used fresh and frozen for jams, jellies, tarts and desserts.

Cranberry Sauce Recipes

  • Buenfeld, Sara (2020): Really simple cranberry sauce recipe. BBC Good Food.
  • Buenfeld, Sara (2020): Simple port and cranberry sauce. BBC Good Food.
  • López-Alt, J. Kenji (2016): How to Make The Best East Cranberry Sauce with Cinnamon and Orange Zest. YouTube.

References and Further Reading

  • Case, Frances (ed.) (2008): 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die. A Global Guide to the Best Ingredients. Cassell Illustrated.
  • Christenhusz, Maarten, J. M. & Fay, Michael F. & Chase, Mark W. (2017): Plants of the World. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Vascular Plants. Kew. Chicago.
  • Coelis, Gabriel (2018): The History of Cranberries. The Kitchen Project. 31 May 2018
  • Davidson, Alan (2006): The Oxford Companion to Food. Second Edition. Edited by Tom Jaine. Oxford University Press.
  • Faber, Anne-Lieke (2015): Cranberry Harvest Terschelling. 12 October 2015
  • van Wyk, Ben-Erik (2005): Food Plants of the World. An Illustrated Guide. Timber Press.

Copyright Note

Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.

© Karen Andrews 2018 onwards. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Andrews and BotanyKaren.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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