It was the Jumblies in Edward Lear’s poem who sailed away in a sieve and went to a land all covered with trees and bought “an Owl, and a useful Cart, and a pound of Rice, and a Cranberry Tart.” Why cranberries and not raspberries or strawberries? Well…
Long before English colonialists discovered the medicinal and culinary benefits of cranberries, native peoples in what became the New World and in Northern Europe knew about the therapeutic qualities of the Vaccinium genus of the Ericaceae plant family and used them to remedy ailments as diverse as scurvy and gout. The genus includes the blueberry, bilberry (or whortleberry), lingonberry (or cowberry), huckleberry, and cranberry.
Opinions differ as to how the “cranberry” came by its name. Some dictionaries say it is probably derived from the German word Kranebere (crane berry). The blossom, perched on a curved stem with its petals bent back at maturity, resembles the neck and head of the crane, a long-legged, long-necked bird. Others believe that the cranberry was so named because it was that bird’s favourite food.
The cranberry plant is a perennial evergreen vine related to the blueberry. Cranberry vines can yield fruit for a very long time – some cultivated cranberry plants in the United States have been producing for more than 100 years. The cranberry is a bog plant and this fruit once grew wild but, contrary to popular belief, cranberries do not grow in water. In fact, they grow on vines in impermeable beds layered with sand, peat, gravel, and clay. These beds, commonly known as “bogs”,” were originally formed by glacial deposits.
The main commercial growers are in the United States, where cranberries are extensively cultivated in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Oregon and Washington as well as in Quebec and British Columbia in Canada. Every acre of cranberry bog is supported by four to ten acres of wetlands, woodlands and uplands. North American growers preserve almost 200,000 acres of support land, growing cranberries on 35,000 acres. In this way, not only does commerce thrive but also vast tracts of natural habitat are preserved for wildlife.
Cranberry bogs are flooded from time to time during the growing season. The crop is under water in early spring and late fall if a heavy frost is expected. An entire cranberry crop can be lost to a killing frost if the blossoms and young berries are not protected in a bath of water.
At harvest time, a special machine is driven through the bed to agitate the water and coax the berries off the vines. The machine used is lightweight and equipped with balloon tires that do not damage the plants. Cranberries float in water, so they rise to the surface. Floating booms are used to coral the berries and draw them to a collection point at the side of the bed. This is the most labour intensive part of the cranberry harvest. The berries are then removed from the water, loaded into wagons and taken away to be dried and sorted by hand.
For decades cranberry juice has enjoyed a reputation as an effective way to prevent bladder infections. Scientists have doggedly tried to confirm this well-known folk truth with dozens of studies, some in test tubes and some in people. Older studies found that the juice worked. Newer ones found that it didn’t. All were too small to be definitive. In 1998 a substance presumed to be the active component in the cranberry was identified, and in 2009 another study suggested that a cranberry extract containing this substance was almost as powerful as an antibiotic. However, in 2011 another impeccably designed and executed study of cranberry juice indicated that the presumed active compound apparently has no effect, although that may simply mean that the juice works, although by an unknown mechanism.
How can the cranberry be so difficult to pin down? For one thing, it contains more than 200 active substances in addition to vitamin C, citric acid, and an array of other acids. The old theory that these acids sterilize urine by acidifying it has been disproved. It seems that even if a person drinks several litres of cranberry juice, the urine does not become acidic enough to slow bacterial growth. Yet, researchers have repeatedly shown that the juice effectively prevents some species of bacteria from adhering to the cells that line the urinary tract. The Jumblies probably knew that.