They’re a Thanksgiving staple and yet there’s so much about cranberries that we get wrong.
Like: they grow underwater, right? Wrong.
To dredge up the secrets and dispel the myths of these tart little berries, we took our "How Does it Grow?" cameras underwater and high in the air. And even though we stuffed our short video with fascinating facts, as usual, we couldn’t fit them all.
So here are a few more to regale your family with this Thanksgiving:
1. Cranberry sauce is more life-changing than you realize.
A hundred years ago, you could only buy cranberries once a year, during harvest, from mid-September to mid-November. That’s because cranberries were only sold whole. But that's all changed: only 5% of the entire US crop is sold as fresh cranberries — the rest goes into processed foods. We can thank one market-savvy farmer for turning the tide. At the turn of the century, Marcus Urann started experimenting with canning cranberries in order to extend the selling season and make cranberries a year-round product. And thus canned cranberry sauce was born.
2. Flooding cranberry bogs is a modern invention.
Until the 1960s, cranberries were harvested from dry bogs — first by hand, and then by machine. It was a more delicate way to handle the berries, ideal for the fresh berry market. Now, with most cranberries being processed into juice, sauce and other foods, wet-harvest is the dominant method (see the video for the amazing step-by-step). Exposing the cranberries to all that water starts to degrade the fruit — but farmers don’t need to worry: within 24 hours, the berries will be frozen and on their way to being dried or pressed. The few farms that sell whole berries still pick them from dry bogs, the more labor-intensive way.
3. Don't judge them by their color.
Farmers used to be paid more for darker, redder berries. But that’s mostly changed with the rise of processed foods like white cranberry juice and dried-sweetened “Craisins.” Our sources tell us that Craisin manufacturers prefer light-red berries because they darken as they’re dehydrated — and the last thing makers want are Craisins that look black like, gasp, raisins! The jury is out on what triggers a cranberry’s color change. Some scientists and farmers believe that cold nightly temperatures in the fall are necessary to trigger the turn from white to red.
4. Cranberries were the unsung heroes of the early days of America.
Growing wild in the New World, cranberries were a boon for early settlers and their descendants. They not only provided a source of food, they were handy for dyeing clothing and rugs. Barrels of cranberries were carried aboard clipper ships, too: because the firm berries could keep well without rotting, they were an invaluable source of vitamin C to sailors looking to prevent scurvy.
5. Wisconsin is America’s top cranberry state.
Yes, the north-central state may be better known for cheese, but it’s also the source of over 60% of the nation’s cranberries. The industry goes back 150 years (though Massachusetts claims the oldest cultivated bogs). Today, over 250 Wisconsin growers farm cranberries — the official state fruit— across 21,000 acres. If you’re so inclined, you can take a 50-mile self-guided tour through the heart of it along the “Cranberry Highway.”