Cranberries are a native North American fruit and once grew wild in the eastern portions of
the continent. When early settlers from Europe first arrived in North America, they found a
variety of wild fruits and berries growing here. They were familiar with most of what they came across, the wild strawberries, raspberries
and currants, but as far as can be determined,
that grew in Europe were not considered an edible fruit; a smaller and of a different
variety. The cranberries they encountered on this continent (Vaccinium macrocarpon is their
botanical name) were native only to North America.
Side Bar Note: About 30 minutes south of the Upper Canada Cranberry farm is the small community of Dundela,
where the very first McIntosh apple was discovered in 1796. Apples growing there today are direct descendants
of the fruit found at that location centuries ago.
I wanted to mention the McIntosh apple because there seems to be a popular misconception that when settlers first arrived in North America, they found a very
limited amount of wild fruit growing in the New World. Europe was blessed with a wide variety of fruits and berries - why would Mother Nature treat similar
climates on this continent any differently? Apparently, it is widely held that only cranberries, blueberries and concord grapes were native to North America
at the time. I believe the person who first made this claim probably meant that these were the only fruits exclusively native to the continent. But this
too is inaccurate - as noted above, there was the McIntosh apple. There were regional fruits as well - for example, the still relatively unknown, but very
delicious Bakeapple Berry, which grows wild to this day in Canada's Maritime Provinces and the Saskatoon Berry, which is popular with folks in the Prairie Provinces.
Aboriginals, who had been consuming cranberries for hundreds, or perhaps thousands of years,
introduced cranberries to the early settlers. The natives also taught the colonists how to make pemmican,
or "trail cake." These were small cakes made with dried lean meat, usually venison, which was
pounded into a paste with animal fat, bone marrow and dried cranberries. It was found that
pemmican could be kept for long periods of time, so it became a major food staple for settlers
Side Bar Note:
This web site is about cranberries and that is why I included them as an ingredient for pemmican.
Pemmican was often made with various types of wild berries and different types of meat, including
moose, elk and bison. At one point there was extensive trade in pemmican between the Hudson's Bay
Company and the Metis, who made huge quantities of the food item.
Early settlers were familiar with the practice of using various plants to dye cloth and once
introduced to the cranberry, began to use it as a source for dye as well. Natives had likely
been using the berry for some time to colour designs on animal skins.
It seems natives also passed on their knowledge of the nutritional and medicinal
properties of the cranberry to the settlers. In those days, people were not even aware of the existence of vitamin C, but the British had
learned that consuming limes helped prevent scurvy while away at sea for extended periods.
Likewise, sailors in the new world found that eating cranberries had the same benefit.
There are different opinions as to how the name 'cranberry' came into being. Better dictionaries
say it is probably derived from the German word 'kranebere.' Folklore suggests this fruit was once called
craneberry. Some say the cranberry blossom,
perched on its curved stem, with its petals bent back fully at
maturity, resembles the neck and head of the crane, a long-legged, long-necked bird.
Others believe that the cranberry, or craneberry, was so named because it is a favorite food of that
bird. At Upper Canada Cranberries, we have regular visits from a number of Blue Herons, which are sometimes
loosely referred to as cranes.
From time to time, we also see wild turkeys at our cranberry farm and they seem to like
our berries too. Sometimes, we jokingly suggest that this is why cranberries came to be
associated with turkey dinners. Although, it is more likely that pairing the two
foods was a practical thing to do in the early days. Turkey dinner has almost always been
a tradition for Thanksgiving Day and it is around that time of year when cranberries are harvested.
Commercial cultivation of the cranberry began in the early 1800s on the east coast of the United States.