National Geographic : 1951 Sep
Indians Taught Us to Use Cranberries W HEN the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, they found a thornless vine grow ing thick over most of the low, semiswampy areas. On the vines were red berries, un familiar and bitter to the palate. Later the Pilgrims learned that the Indians valued these berries highly, both as food (probably pounded with meat into a paste called "pemmican") and as a poultice for blood poisoning. The Indian name for them was I-bimi, "bitter berry." The colonists, perhaps because the berries were a favorite food of cranes, called them crane-berries, and eventually, cranberries. It would be pleasant to say definitely that the Pilgrims ate cranberries with their turkey and bear meat at the first Thanksgiving dinner, but there is no sure evidence that they did. The record of that feast, contained in a letter believed to have been written by Governor Edward Winslow, tells that four hunters were sent out and killed enough fowl in one day to serve the company for a week. Chief Massasoit and a party of his tribe joined them for three days and added three bears to the larder. Cranberries would have blended admirably with this menu; the In dians were familiar with them; and at that season of the year they should have been plen tiful. Beyond that the evidence does not go. Berries That Thrive Under Water The American cranberry, Vaccinium macro carpum, is native from Nova Scotia, Canada, to North Carolina and westward to Wis consin. It is found mainly in low, swampy sites, particularly those that flood in winter and drain in summer. The coast of Massa chusetts, particularly Cape Cod, was a rich center of native cranberries in colonial days; it still leads in production today. For nearly 200 years the settlers were con tent to harvest their cranberries from wild vines. This wild crop was a considerable source of revenue on many farms. Early in the 19th century the first attempts were made to transplant and cultivate the fruit. Henry Hall, a veteran of the Revolution, is credited with being the first to try. About 1816 he transplanted wild vines to a swampy site near Dennis that appeared favorable for cranberries. His efforts were apparently suc cessful. In 1832 the local paper printed a story of his work, stating that his grounds averaged about 70 bushels per acre produc tion. Soon other growers in Massachusetts were planting cranberries; a little later culture was started in New Jersey. Many plantings failed before growers gradually learned the condi tions essential for success. They learned that bog areas with peat soil were favorable; that these should be leveled and the surface layers removed to eliminate weeds; that they should be well ditched to provide drainage, but should also be built so that they could be flooded during the winter, both to protect the vines from cold and to control insect pests. Thus in the last century cranberry growing has evolved as one of our most intensive and complicated horticultural industries. Expen sive preparation is necessary before planting. Practically all bogs are built so that they can be flooded and drained quickly, either by large pumps or by natural flow. Sand is spread over the peat to promote the growth of vines. Problems of insect and disease con trol must be solved. Yet the industry has grown until about 800,000 barrels are produced in an average year, mainly in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Washington, and Oregon. Mas sachusetts is by far the leading State, raising more than half the Nation's crop. The earliest plantings were made with un selected wild plants, but soon growers began to choose highly productive plants with es pecially fine berries. These were propagated and became the basis of the present industry. Modern growers have produced as many as 300 bushels of cranberries on a single acre. Cranberries are picked by hand, or with large, rake-toothed scoops which are pulled through the vines and remove the berries. Since some of the berries are usually bruised, damaged, or decayed, they must be sorted before they are sold. One method, common in earlier times and still used in principle, was to roll the berries down a series of 10 to 30 steps. The good ones, being firm, bounced to the bottom like little rubber balls: the damaged berries, being soft, stayed on the steps. Machines are now largely used for grading, but even these de pend on the ability of the good berries to bounce. Equally Good on the Fourth of July The American cranberry has not become a cultivated crop outside the United States and Canada. In the far north of Europe a related, but smaller-sized, fruit is abundant as a native plant, and great quantities are har vested. Neither the European species nor the American is extensively cultivated in Europe. The tradition that helped to give cranberries their start in America has in recent years held the industry back. Growers and canners, pro ducing far more berries and sauce than con sumers can possibly eat at Thanksgiving season, have sponsored publicity campaigns to persuade housewives that cranberries are good to eat the year around, not just on one Thursday in November.