native to: Northern Europe, Asia, and the US, and Canada
in season here: late fall into winter
Contrary to the popular image, cranberries don’t require an actual bog to grow in, although they do need plenty of water and acidic, sandy soil and will grow in one (and what else are you going to grow there?). They’re a member of the Ericaceae or heather family, related to blueberries, bilberries, and lingonberries, and grow on low creeping shrubs with thin branches and small evergreen leaves. Cranberries are also called bounceberries because they bounce when ripe (a quality actually used commercially to sort them), and craneberries because their blossoms look a bit like the heads of cranes. The berries float, so flooding the field is the easiest way to harvest them. Most of the big commercial fields sell the biggest, juiciest berries to juice manufacturers, so once again a farmers’ market is the best place to shop.
Cranberries were used by Native Americans as food, decorations, medicine, and dyes. The American cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon, is the most widely-grown variety, having the biggest berries, but other species such as the European cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos) can be found throughout the northern hemisphere and the smaller-berried Vaccinium microcarpum is common in northern Europe and Asia.
Cranberries are rich in phyto-nutrients that offer protection against cavities, urinary tract infections, cancer, neurological diseases, and inflammatory diseases, and may support the immune system in general. They also have a lot of antioxidants and are useful against cholesterol problems. They’re a good source of all sorts of nutrients, providing lots of vitamins A, C, E, and K, beta-carotene, lutein, zea-xanthin, folate, potassium, and manganese. They’ll turn urine acidic, which helps prevent the formation of alkaline stones in the urinary tract, although the oxalic acid can form its own stones, so be careful if that’s a concern for you, and be sure you’re getting plenty of water with your cranberries. You should also be careful of cranberries if you’re taking warfarin or need to build up minerals such as calcium.
Cranberries are most commonly consumed as juice, but this is not the best way to get all those great phytonutrients. Also, many “juices” are mostly water and sugar, so be sure to check the fine print on those labels.
label-style nutrition information for raw cranberries
label-style nutrition information for sweetened dried cranberries
Nutrition and You
Medical News Today
Versión en español: this post is also available in Spanish
Esperanta traduko: this post is also available in Esperanto, because Dana is a language geek.