In the Garden:
Western Mountains and High Plains
December, 2006
Regional Report

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Fresh cranberries and an orange make a wonderful cranberry relish rich in vitamin C.

It's Cranberry Appreciation Time

The cranberry doesn't receive much attention during most of the year, but as the holiday season arrives, cranberries can be found in supermarkets, ready to be part of holiday dinners. There are few edible crops produced by a plant as unique as the cranberry.

Cranberries are a native species of acid bogs of the northern and northeastern United States, as well as some parts of Canada. Native Americans of the northern coastal and lake areas were using cranberries long before European settlers arrived in America. They ate the berries raw or cooked. Cranberries were also mashed together with dried meats and animal fat, which formed a nonperishable pressed cake. The high vitamin C content in the berries in the pressed cakes helped them to survive long winters without suffering vitamin C deficiency.

During the first 200 years of European colonization, cranberries were gathered only from acid bogs. The first manmade cranberry bed was constructed in 1816, and by the mid-1800s cranberries had become popular in many American cities.

Cranberries are broadleaf evergreen plants that grow by trailing along the ground. As they grow, they spread across the surface, producing short vertical shoots that flower and later produce the small red fruits. These small shoots produce fruits for many years. The top 6 to 8 inches always remain upright while the rest of the stem lies on the ground.

Cranberry flowers are pink and curve downward. The cranberry was once known as the "crane" berry since the flowers and flower buds resemble the neck, head, and long beak of the great sandhill cranes, which often nested in wild cranberry bogs.

Making a Cranberry Bog
A modern cranberry bed is developed by digging out a large basin. The basin is filled with peat and sand, leaving ditches for flooding and draining. (More recently, it has been found that cranberries may be grown in a sand culture in marshes where peat is not available.) A system of dikes and flood gates is set up to control the water movement. Both flooding and drainage are important, since the plants cannot remain flooded for more than 24 hours at a time when they are actively growing. Flooding serves several purposes during cranberry production. It's not only necessary for good, vigorous growth, it also helps in insect control, provides frost protection, and may help the plants from being injured during severe cold temperatures.

While the cranberry's specific growing requirements make it unsuitable for home gardens, we can still enjoy them in juices, pies, and relishes at our holiday tables ... and year-round.


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