Cranberries are one of the only major commercial fruits native to North America. They’re featured heavily during the holiday season, but are they really berries?
The Short Answer:
No, Cranberries are not berries.
The Long Answer:
You can roast them, sauce them, juice them, and feature them prominently for both Thanksgiving and Christmas meals. But what many believe to be one of the most common berries in the American holiday diet is not a berry at all.
Both cranberries and their close cousin the blueberry are not actually berries. Rather, they’re classified as epigynous, a type of fruit commonly called false berries. What makes them false? Scientifically, a berry is produced from the fertilized ovary of a flower. Cranberries, however, grow underneath the flowering part of their plant. While normal berries spring forth from their flower and replace it on the vine, a cranberry matures alongside the flower.
Many fruits entrust the spreading of their seeds to hungry animals, but cranberries rely upon the water for dispersal. Contrary to popular belief, cranberries do not grow in the water. The cranberry plant typically lays its roots along the bank of a body of water, thriving in soil that is rich with peat, clay, sand, and rock.
Cranberry vines grow over the water and, once they’ve ripened sufficiently, the fruit falls off. They are then carried along the surface of the water to distant beds, where the seeds can in turn grow into more cranberry plants. Cranberries are incredibly buoyant compared to other fruits, thanks to a series of small air pockets located in their core. This allows them to float easily on the surface of the water, like tiny buoys.
Cranberries get their acidity because of their evolution toward water-based dispersal. Blueberries on the other hand are sweeter, because they evolved to produce sugar in order to entice animals into eating their fruit and spreading their seeds.
So how did cranberries come to be associated with Thanksgiving?
Native Americans had a history of using wild cranberries. To them, it was more than a food. They used it to dye fabric, preserve animal meat, and treat wounds. According to popular legend, Native Americans helped early European settlers through some early harsh winters by showing them how to use cranberries.
There are many who believe that their inclusion in the first Thanksgiving could have been due to this connection.
The farming of cranberries evolved as well over the years. Whereas once they were painstakingly picked by hand, farmers eventually realized that if they flood the bogs that cranberries grow by, the fruit will float and they can skim them off the surface. This development helped bring cranberry farming into the modern age.
What’s your favorite use for cranberries? Sauce? Juice? A garnish? Have you ever tried it on a Thanksgiving leftover sandwich? (Give that a try this year and you won’t regret it)
Comment below and let us know!