Climate change

The Cranberry: a very American berry

Native Americans used wild cranberries harvested from their natural habitats and introduced them to settlers hundreds of years ago. Today, most of the cranberries that people eat come from wild selections that are cultivated widely. Do truly wild cranberries still exist and why does it matter?

Small red cranberries on a small-leafed bush with green leaves
Cranberry plant found on a grassy area of a small mountainside in North Carolina. Credit: Karen Williams

Many people have seen photos of cranberries floated in flooded fields ready to be scooped up during the fall harvest by cranberry farmers, but fewer people are aware that cranberries also grow wild in the United States and Canada. Wild cranberries grow in spots ranging from tiny mountainside seeps to bogs stretching as far as the eye can see. The cranberry fruits are borne on trailing woody vines and found nestled among green mosses in these bogs; picking just a few handfuls can take hours.

As is the case with many foods, the use of cranberries originated with Native Americans, including the Algonquin, Chippewa, Cree, Wampanoag and Lenni-Lanape peoples. Native Americans picked wild cranberry fruits for millennia before Europeans settlers arrived. They consumed them in many ways, including making an energy bar out of them. They also used the fruits in medicines, to dye textiles and jewelry, and as bait to trap animals.  Cranberries may have been part of the “first Thanksgiving,” a harvest dinner shared between colonists and the Wampanoag Indians in 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Cranberry bog in West Virginia looks swampy surrounded by forest and small stream
Studying a wild cranberry bog in the Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia. Both species of wild cranberry grow here. Credit: Karen Williams

There are two different species of wild cranberry in North America. The large-fruited cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon Ait., grows only on this continent. It has been selected and grown by farmers for the past 200 years and is the species that is used to make sauce for Thanksgiving. It is also used to make juices and to add to baked goods, cereals, wine and sparkling water. The sweetened, dried cranberries sold in grocery stores also come from this species.

The second species of cranberry is the small cranberry, Vaccinium oxycoccos L. It is not grown by farmers, but is a wild relative of the cultivated cranberry and is widely consumed in Europe, where it is also native.

You would recognize both species as cranberries if you saw them in a bog. In regions where these species occur, they are often found growing together and are difficult to tell apart. Native Americans and others continue to collect both species from the wild, but only the large-fruited cranberry is planted by commercial cranberry growers.

The two wild cranberry species are examples of what scientists refer to as “crop wild relatives.” These wild species are important parts of natural environments. Crop wild relatives are also important resources for plant breeders and other scientists working to grow stronger and better crops. The wild cranberry plants are more variable than the cranberry grown as a crop and their genes can help to solve problems faced by the crop. Wild cranberries may hold the key to dealing with diseases and insects that attack cultivated cranberries, adapting the crop to a changing climate, and to growing plants with bigger and redder berries.

Bright red berries are ripe on cranberry bushes
In the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington, hikers can find bushes with small cranberries. Credit: Karen Williams

If you go for a hike in a National Forest in many states in the US, you may be lucky enough to see a bog with wild cranberries. Some bogs are even named after cranberries, such as the Cranberry Glades in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. The US Forest Service takes care of the National Forests where many of these bogs are found.

The USDA Agricultural Research Service conducts research to help cranberry growers with their crop. The ARS also stores seed of both wild and cultivated cranberries in the National Plant Germplasm System, which is used by scientists in research on cranberries.

Three red cranberries are held by a hand
Close up of wild cranberries from Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington. Credit: Karen Williams

Recently, the USFS and ARS formed a team to study and conserve the wild cranberry resources found on National Forests. They were joined by scientists at the University of Wisconsin, who are experts in cranberry genetics. The team is studying the wild cranberries and the bogs where they grow. The bogs are being looked after by the USFS and will be protected long into the future. The cranberries from these bogs will be available for use by scientists whenever the need arises. They will also continue to be used directly as sources of food, medicines and dyes by Native Americans and other people. This will help to make sure that everyone can continue to enjoy cranberries on Thanksgiving and throughout the year.

Provided by Karen A. Williams, USDA-ARS and Lorraine Rodriguez-Bonilla, University of Wisconsin

Read about more crop wild relatives in these blogs!

Conserving crop wild cousins

Frank Meyer, an early plant explorer

Yams, a main staple in Africa, Asia

Call of the wild sunflower

And, be sure to visit our main Crop Wild Relative Week page for more information!

About us: This blog is sponsored and written by members of the American Society of Agronomy and Crop Science Society of America. Our members are researchers and trained, certified, professionals in the areas of growing our world’s food supply while protecting our environment. We work at universities, government research facilities, and private businesses across the United States and the world.

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