Garden Guru: Cranberries cast as colorful character for Thanksgiving role

By John Porter
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The cranberry is colorful, but it usually plays second fiddle to all the other trimmings that accompany the fowl star of the Thanksgiving day meal -- green beans, potatoes, the dressing and even the deviled eggs. Just a dollop on the side as an afterthought. They sink even lower on the scale if they come in a solid can-shaped blob that's sliced up beside the turkey.This is such a cruel fate for one of the few native fruits in North America that is grown commercially (it's joined by its relatives the blueberry, Concord grapes, strawberries, black raspberries, black cherries and several others not found on the commercial market).The native species of cranberry, the one grown commercially, is Vaccinium macrocarpon. This and the other species of cranberries are spread throughout the cool, temperate areas of North America.Cranberry Glades, boreal-type bogs found in Pocahontas County in the Monongahela National Forest, do indeed host a few cranberry species. Cranberries are also closely related to blueberries, bilberries and lingonberries (a Scandinavian staple), and all of these plants are in the genus Vaccinium. They are in the Ericaceace family, along with rhododendrons and azaleas, and they share a preference for acidic soil.We don't know for sure if cranberries were on the menu for the first Thanksgiving in 1621, but American Indians did use the fruit much earlier for both food and dye. Records indicate that Indians combined the tart berries with meat and fat to form a survival food called pemmican.The word "cranberry" came about as a derivation of craneberry, which is what early settlers called the plant because they thought the delicate flower resembled a crane. During the time of the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims' store of sugar was also almost depleted, therefore it is unlikely that cranberries were eaten during the first celebration (it wouldn't have been a fun party if everyone had a puckered-up face).Cranberry sauce doesn't show up in the records until 50 years after the first Thanksgiving, and it didn't really become a holiday tradition until Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ordered it served to troops for the Thanksgiving meal in 1864.
Now, cranberries do form some part of both Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday meals. Sauces, jellies, salads etc. made from the tart berry are used to cut the heaviness of rich meats such as turkey and ham. But Thanksgiving accounts for only 20 percent of the consumption of the 800 million pounds of cranberries projected to be produced in the United States this year. The other 80 percent is used in juices (and, by extension, cocktails, such as the Cosmopolitan), muffins, breads and more. You may be surprised that Wisconsin produces the most cranberries, accounting for more than half of the total domestic production.But wait! This is supposed to be a gardening article, so why are we talking about a plant that we don't grow around here? Well, just because we don't grow it doesn't mean we can't grow it. True, cranberries do grow in bogs in nature, but they don't have to. Modern cranberry farmers grow cranberries in areas that can be flooded -- not because the plants like it, but because it makes harvesting easier. Cranberries float, so all farmers have to do for harvest is shake the berries loose from the plant and flood the field. All the cranberries float to the top, where they are scraped off.There is no reason why a home gardener in West Virginia can't grow cranberries. Wouldn't it be neat to be able to serve home-grown or locally grown cranberries for Thanksgiving? Most people only need a pound or two for Thanksgiving (unless, of course, you are a hardcore Cosmo drinker), which could be easily grown in a small spot in the yard.What's more, the small, attractive spreading plant makes a great groundcover. The plant should be grown in soil that is acidic (we're talking a pH of 4 to 5) and has a high level of organic matter. Amending the soil with peat moss will help achieve a good growing bed, as this will help replicate the natural bog habitat. You may also need to adjust the pH further with sulfur or some other soil acidifier.Cranberry plants themselves grow to a diameter of about 1 foot, but they will put out runners and spread to fill in the area in which they are planted. If you have a 1-year-old transplant, plant them 1 foot apart. Plant 3-year-old transplants 3 feet apart.To encourage this in the first year after planting, be sure to give the plants some extra nitrogen fertilizer. In the second year, you can begin fertilizing with a balanced fertilizer. To control growth, add a 1/2-inch layer of sand on top of the soil in subsequent years to keep them from putting down runners.John Porter is the WVU Extension Service agent for agriculture and natural resources in Kanawha County. He may be reached at or at 304-720-9573. Twitter: @WVgardenguru.
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