• Published: Monday, March 2, 2020

One of the traditional foods seen on Thanksgiving tables every year is cranberries.  These native North American fruits are grown in several of the northern states, especially Massachusetts, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Washington, and Oregon.  Since most folks in Northwest Missouri are not familiar with the culture of this crop, I thought I would give you a little background about this interesting fruit.

Cranberries grow wild from the Carolinas to the maritime provinces of Canada.  They were used by Native Americans, who called them sassamanash.  They made cakes out of them that included dried meat, animal fat, and grains.  This was called pemmican.

Cranberries are grown in bogs where periodic flooding can be maintained by the grower.  These bogs are often created with laser-leveling technology similar to that used around the Missouri Delta to level rice fields.  To protect plants from winter injury, the bogs are flooded.  When spring arrives, the bogs are drained, and the plants soon begin to flower.  Bees are critical to insure good pollination.

Frosts in both the spring and fall can cause problems, so sprinkler systems are installed and used to insure a good crop.  Irrigation is also used when needed.

At harvest, many growers flood their bogs.  Water-reel harvesting machines are used to loosen the cranberries, which then float to the surface of the water.  The fruits are then “corralled” into smaller areas, where conveyers can easily pick them up.  Some growers harvest them dry and sell them as fresh fruit.

If all this doesn’t sound strange enough, there are two additional practices which make cranberry growing unique.  One is mowing.  They mow the plants in the spring.  This stimulates the plants to produce vigorous upright shoots, which eventually provide more fruit.  But in the year that they mow, there is no fruit harvested.  The benefit of mowing doesn’t occur until the second year, when the fruit is harvested. Mowing also produces cuttings that can be used to establish new plantings.

The other unique practice is sanding.  This is done every few years in the winter, after the bog is frozen solid.  They drive trucks out onto the ice and spread a two-inch layer of sand.  Next spring, when the ice melts, the sand falls to the bottom and covers the runners.  This promotes better rooting of the runners, and better plant health.

Cranberries can be quite profitable for growers, and demand is increasing.  But the type of land that is suitable for them is limited.  In addition, they don’t do well in most of the mid and southern United States, because of disease pressure.  So I doubt you’ll see them any time soon in Missouri.

But we can still enjoy them.  Cranberry dressing, cranberry juice, and other products such as “craisins” are delicious.  Craisins are dried cranberries which are used in breakfast cereals and fruit mixes.  So enjoy this native American fruit this Thanksgiving.

Writer: Timothy Baker

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