(Vaccinium sp. – Family Ericaceae)
Cranberry [for V. oxycoccus and V. vitis idaea – Lingonberry ]
canneberge (myrtille rouge)[French], Moosbeere (Preiselbeere)[German], mortella di palude (Italian), arandano agrio (Spanish), arando (uva dos montes)[Portuguese], tyttebær (lignon)[ Danish/Norwegian], tranbär (cranberry)[Swedish], lignon (Swedish), isokarpalo (puolukka)[Finnish], klyukva (brusnika)[Russian], zurawina (brusznica/jagoda)[Polish], klikva/zoravina (boruwka)[Czech], klukva mociarna (Slovak), tözegafonya (Hungarian), brusnica (borovnica)[ Serbo-Croat], rachitelele (merisoara)[Romanian]
Fruits of this genus are highly confusing as it includes such berries as cranberry, blueberry/bilberry, whortleberry, bearberry, and the arbutus. Cowberries and lingonberries are also similar but smaller.
These tart, red berries are the most important of the edible berries, borne by a group of low, scrubby plants that grow on moors and mountainsides, in bogs and other places with poor acidy soil throughout the world; but they are best known in Europe and North America.
The name, Vaccinium, is the old Latin name derived from “vacca” (cow) and given because cows liked the plants. It is also the reason behind its old name of “cowberry”.
It is speculated that the Pilgrims called them “crane berries” because cranes fed on them, or maybe because the arched blossoms of the plant resemble a crane’s silhouette. Other old-time names included bog ruby and cow berry.
The plants to which the name cranberry was originally given are two species which occur in Europe, as well as in other temperate parts of the world. Vaccinium oxycoccus is sometimes called the small cranberry, and V. vitis idaea is more readily found in the northern and higher altitude regions.
It is sometimes called mountain cranberry, or foxberry in North America; but, in Europe, it is better known as lingonberry. Both plants bear red oval berries with a sharp flavour, which makes them popular for preserves.
Generally speaking, all varieties of cranberries taste the same. Their colour ranges from pink to deep lacquer red. White berries are now available. This is not a separate variety, but chosen at a particular time before they ripen fully into the familiar red colour. These are made into the white cranberry juice.
Dried cranberries are sometimes sold as “craisins”. Although they look like raisins, their taste is not nearly as sweet, but they can be used in a similar way.
For centuries before the first settlers arrived in America, native Americans prized wild cranberries for their nutritional and medicinal value, using them to make a fabric dye and for decorative feathers. Although cranberries were already known in Britain, the pilgrims found that the American berries were larger and more succulent, and called them “craneberries” because their pink blossoms resembled a crane’s head or, maybe because of the crane’s fondness for the berries.
Commercial cultivation began in the 19th century; and now cranberries are available fresh, frozen, canned, dried, juiced, and made into jellies and relishes.
Various Vaccinium species in other parts of the world produce fruits comparable to the cranberry but are of less importance. One such is V. reticulata of Hawaii, which bears the ohelo berry. It is red or yellow in colour and sweet enough to eat raw; however, its pectin content is very low.
The American cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) produces clusters of white, urn-shaped flowers which turn into bright red, tart berries in August or September. The shrubs grow only about a foot tall, but their capacity to spread is unlimited. The sprawling stems will take root wherever they touch the ground.
The berries tend to be bitter before the first frost, but the flavour improves thereafter. The Stevens variety is a very productive hybrid that does well in the Pacific Northwest. This variety is closely related to the English fenberry, the Irish bogberry, and the Swedish lingonberry. However, the native North American berry is eaten more extensively than any of its Old World counterparts.
Cranberries are sometimes known as “bounceberries” since they were traditionally tested for firmness by being bounced seven times. Any which fail the bounce test are discarded as they are overripe. The bounce test used to be carried out by throwing them down a flight of stairs. Those that bounced were kept. Thankfully, modern machinery now carries out a more hygenic practice, using the same principle, however.
Because of their waxy skins, cranberries keep for much longer than other berries. Even in former times, its remarkable keeping qualities enabled it to withstand long sea voyages stored only in barrels full of plain water.
For centuries, cranberries have been used therapeutically. Documentation during the 17th century stated their uses for blood disorders, stomach ailments, liver problems, vomiting, appetite loss, scurvy, and cancer.
In Eastern Europe, the cranberry was traditionally used to reduce fevers and treat cancer. Today, its use to reverse kidney and urinary bladder infections is well known.
In 1985, researchers at Youngstown State University in Ohio found a special factor in cranberries that interferes with the ability of pathogenic bacteria to cling to the surface cells in the bladder and urinary tract. The factor showed up in the urine of both animals and humans within one to three hours after consuming cranberry juice and staying potent for as long as fifteen hours afterward. This gave scientific proof to what the ancients knew all along when they used cranberries for urinary tract infections.
Other research confirming the cranberry’s benefits for urinary tract infections have been written up in the following journals: The Journal of American Medicine (1994), Southwest Medicine (1968), Journal of Urology (1984), and The Wisconsin Journal of Medicine (1962) – to name a few.
The nutrient content of the cranberry can vary greatly and is dependent upon numerous factors, especially the quality of the plant and the soil, seasonal climate, harvesting conditions, drying and storage conditions, and the manufacturing process.
Despite being 90% water, what is packed into this little berry are vitamins A, B, C, and D, as well as potassium, calcium, phosphorus, some proteins and fats, carbohydrates, and iron.
They were considered a good protection against scurvy. Unfortunately, because of necessity, by adding sugar to these tart berries, the nutritional quality is significantly reduced. However, some sugar substitutes can be even more harmful; so the best way to take cranberries is to add fresh or frozen ones to a drink containing other naturally sweetened fruits to disguise the tartness or use stevia.
Cranberries contain benzoic acid, which acts as a preservative and antifungal agent, as well as other acids which contribute to health, including malic acid, quinic acid, and citric acid.
Malic acid, for example, is known to help guard against diarrhea, while regulating digestion. Cranberries also have a large array of phyonutrients (phytochemicals). These are biologically active substances in plants that give them their distinctive colour, flavour, and their own natural resistance to disease.
To date, thousands of phytonutrients have been discovered, with more being added all the time. The recent phytonutrient discoveries in the cranberry include anthocyanins, catechins, chlorogenic acid, eugenol, lutein, proanthocyanidins, and quercetin. While some of these are sold individually, the second best thing is to take the full spectrum as science has yet to determine the synergistic effects – which nature already knows.
The best thing, is to use the fresh fruit since science has yet to discover all that it contains, so cannot manufacture complete substitutes. Bog cranberry, wild cranberry, moss cranberry (V. oxycoccus) is a fruit very closely related to the commercial cranberry. It is the fruit from a slender, creeping, vine-like shrub that has tiny oval leaves spaced evenly along the trailing stem.
The berries are round, but somewhat elongated, and remain hard and green well into autumn, usually turning red and softer after the first frost. The taste resembles that of commercial cranberries. These berries can be found growing in muskegs and peat bogs and always in association with sphagnum moss.
Some botanists place this species in the separate genus, Oxyccoccus, and differentiated into three species: O. macrocarpus, O. oxycoccus, and O.quadripetalus. However, they are all so similar that they are usually treated as one species.
Despite its name, the high-bush cranberry (Viburnum sp.) (also called squashberry or moosewood) is from an entirely different family of plants, Caprifoliaceae, the Honeysuckle family. This species produces straggling shrubs with smooth reddish bark. The fruits are round and shiny and vary from red to orange in colour.
When unripe, they are hard and extremely acidic; but later, especially after a frost, they become soft and palatable, but still remain slightly tart. Each berry contains a large, flattened seed and generally used for making jams.