When we think of traditional Thanksgiving foods from the Hoosier garden, corn, squash, beans, apples and pumpkin come to mind.
But, if we transport ourselves back 150 years, we had wild cranberries (Vaccinuim macrocarpon) harvested from bogs and wetlands in the northern part of Indiana at the meal.
These acidic, ruby fruits are an important part of American history. Native Americans called the native cranberry sassamanash and reportedly served it at the famous Massachusetts meal known as the first Thanksgiving.The fruit has a role in Indiana history, too.
Abraham Lincoln referenced Indiana’s cranberry law in his debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858. In 1859, the Indiana General Assembly passed a law that said: “Any person who shall gather cranberries from any of the public, state or non-residential lands of this state, between the first day of May, and the fifteenth day of September of any year, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and once conviction thereof, in a court of competent jurisdiction, shall be fined in any sum not exceeding $25 for each offense.”
Indiana naturalist and author Gene Stratton Porter mentioned cranberries in her books, including “A Daughter of the Land.” In the book, one of the characters makes a Christmas decoration of popcorn, rose hips, swamp holly, corn and cranberries.
Most of the areas where Porter’s wild cranberries grew in Indiana were drained so the land could be used for agriculture.
Today, North American cranberries are grown in Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin and Canada. In Wisconsin, the cranberry is the largest fruit crop produced in land and value. Now a super food, cranberry’s popularity has grown as it has become known for its antioxidants.
Cranberry, part of same family as rhododendrons, azaleas and blueberries, is a small, attractive, evergreen shrubby vine. The plant is extremely winter hardy but less tolerant of hot weather. The plant has pale pink flowers followed by white berries that turn red as they ripen. The fruit is harvested in fall.
Contrary to popular images, cranberries are not grown under water. Fields are flooded during harvest to elevate the fruit for easy picking.
It would be a good plant to consider for wetland and bog areas or sites that flood part of the year. For more information about growing cranberries in the garden, visit Cranberry Creations,