Story of a Wild Cranberry

Walking through a bog is something I’ve done many times. During my undergraduate career I held more mud and squeezed more moss than I could shake a reed at. It was a first for me, though, to walk through a bog and see wild cranberries growing along the path. It was a pleasant, and most likely bitter-tasting surprise, especially so out of season. I was once again excited and inspired by the incredible diversity of a northeastern bog.

Massachusetts is probably known in some circles for its cranberry production. There’s an estimated 14,000 acres of cranberry bogs in southeastern Massachusetts and the variety they grow, Vaccinium macrocarpon, is the cranberry whose juice you drink and whose sauce you enjoy with turkey and mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving. They grow on dwarf shrubs and vines that trail low to the ground like strawberries, and are related to blueberries and huckleberries. The conditions of southeastern Massachusetts like the temperate weather, acidic wetland soils, with sand mixing in from the nearby shoreline dunes create ideal spaces for cranberries to grow. As for their origin story, they most likely sprung from kettle lakes created from retreating glaciers, which provided wet depressions for these dwarf shrubs to thrive. The sand that blows in from dunes and beaches in coastal areas makes the vines grow faster and stronger, something cranberry farmers learned early on, so productive cranberry operations will spread a layer of sand over their crop every few years. Productive vines can last for many years, and some in Cape Cod have been growing and producing cranberries for over a century!

Vaccinium macrocarpon is native to the north-central and northeastern United States and central and eastern Canada, but can also be found as far south as the Appalachians in Tennessee and North Carolina. It was a wonderful surprise to see those little evergreen leaves and bright red berries in western Massachusetts, and hopefully it won’t be the last crop I get to see. To see your own cranberries, a New England bog is a great place to look. They will be in areas that are wet and acidic, and they’ll be living near your feet. Cranberries are harvested in the fall, so an autumn walk through the wetland may bring you face-to-face with this Thanksgiving treat.


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