There are only three fruits which are completely native to North America: blueberries, Concord grapes and cranberries. Cranberries, which are harvested in the fall, have a special place in American tradition as a celebration food of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Erika Celeste reports from Wareham, Massachusetts, site of the largest cranberry farm in the world.
While the tradition of American Thanksgiving dates back more than 380 years, there is a new Thanksgiving tradition in Massachusetts. It's celebrating the cranberry harvest.
For the past five years, people from all over the United States and around the world have been coming to the nation's largest and oldest cranberry farm, A.D. Makepeace, to watch the harvest.
"People love to come out and see the crystal-blue water and crimson-red fruit floating on top of it," says Jeff LaFleur, executive director of the Cranberry Growers Association. "I think it is one of the most picturesque harvests in all of American agriculture."
Fall harvest draws crowds to cranberry farms
The cranberry vines, twisting together in specially constructed lowlands, have disappeared under knee-deep water. On a sunny day, with blue skies overhead, the flooded field looks like a new box of crayons. Bright green and yellow harvesters glide through the bog, and millions of tiny red berries pop to the surface, creating a kaleidoscope of rich colors.
Mike Hogan, executive director of A.D. Makepeace, says the harvest is his favorite time of year.
"We flood the bogs that they grow on, and then we use specialized equipment to beat the fruit off the vines," he explains. "They have little seeds inside and air pockets. Those air pockets allow them to float when we pick them on the water. And that makes it easier for us to harvest them."
He says there is a lot of hard work to do the rest of the year to manage pests and help strengthen root systems.
During the A.D. Makepeace harvest celebration, visitors enjoy food, games and entertainment near the farmhouse-like offices, then take a bus ride out to the cranberry bogs. Once there, they can walk down to the water's edge to see the berries up close, climb a platform for a higher perspective, or even take a helicopter ride for a true overview of the harvest.
A tangy addition to the diet
Cranberries were introduced to the European pilgrims by Native Americans. LaFleur explains that because the colonists had never seen anything like them, they relied on what they knew to name them.
"They thought the flower blossoms of the cranberry resembled the head of the crane, so they began calling them 'craneberry.' Eventually, it lost its 'e' and became cranberry," LaFleur says.
However you spell it, Hogan says there's just nothing like a good cranberry.
"They are tart and tangy, especially when they are ripe," he says. "Very few people will eat them without some additional seasoning or sugar."
The majority of A.D. Makepeace's cranberries are used for Craisins, a sweetened, dried snack similar to raisins, as well as sauce and juice.
The company is one of 600 cranberry growers across Canada and the United States that are part of the Ocean Spray cooperative, the largest distributor of cranberry products in the world. The growers are all in the northern part of North America.
"There must be a certain number of degree days that are warm enough to support the plant and the berry, but cool enough nights," Hogan says. "The cool nights are what give the berries their red color as well as some of the sugar content and the crisp taste."
There are many varieties and sizes of cranberries these days, from the old-fashioned, pea-sized fruit, all the way up to new hybrids the size of seedless grapes. The century-old vines in the Makepeace bogs produce the traditional small berries with which Americans are most familiar.
Nutritional benefits add to cranberry's appeal
For years, when Americans thought of cranberries, they associated the fruit with Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. And they still do. In fact, the average American family buys one bag of cranberries for each holiday meal. That is about 35 million bags or 15,000 tractor-trailers full. In addition to spicing up the meal, the berries also add a festive touch to traditional holiday garlands to drape around the Christmas tree.
But today, cranberries are a year-round fruit. Over the past decade, researchers have discovered that they are high in antioxidants, which may play a role in helping to prevent heart disease and certain cancers. The finding is definitely playing a role in helping the cranberry industry
"There's a whole rapidly growing business in what's called nutraceuticals, using oils and powders and resins from cranberries because of the health benefits for things like cosmetics, sports drinks, sports energy bars, and in parts of Asia, it's also used as a nutrition supplement," Hogan says.
The little red berries have been shown to have many other benefits for the body. LaFleur points to their anti-adhesion properties.
"Cranberries have been so beneficial for urinary tract infection prevention because, frankly, it just prevents bad bugs from sticking, if you will," he says. "Its anti-adhesion properties really give it some powerful anti-cancer properties, periodontal benefits, so it's got a lot of different benefits that are just starting to be promoted throughout the industry."
In an effort to identify even more health benefits, the Cranberry Institute is conducting research on the fruit's anti-aging properties, which may help protect the brain from neurological damage and subsequent loss of cognitive and motor skills.
So while the cranberry is a big part of the American Thanksgiving, it may very well give people around the world a reason to give thanks as well - for their health.