Most people only eat cranberries at Thanksgiving or maybe Christmas. When they do find their way to our plates they’re usually smothered with sugar. If people only knew the benefits of this tart fruit they might try eating them more often and more naturally.
Cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) are native to much of the Northeastern part of North America. Sunny places with moist sandy acidic soil are necessary for them to thrive. Growth requirements are quite specific. Soil pH should be no higher than 5.0, which is far too acid for most plants. Additionally, plants are shallow rooted and not drought tolerant, so water must always be abundant. Wild ones can be found in isolated areas in our area and in the mountains of western North Carolina but we are at the southern edge of their range.
Plants are very low growing. Often mature plants are less than two feet tall, so they can be easily shaded by taller and more aggressive species. Tiny oblong leaves emerge singly on creeping stems. Most branches creep along the ground but the ones that produce fruit are upright.
These delicate wiry vines produce their bounty in late fall. Cranberry season generally lasts from October until December. Each berry contains four seeds. Fruits are very acidic in taste, having a pH in the range of 2.3 to 2.5. Throughout the summer the developing cranberries are white, and they stay that way for a long time. White fruits should generally be avoided. Many people who see unripe cranberries think they are poisonous.
When these berries ripen they are not only edible, but they are among the healthiest fruits you can find. Only blueberries have higher levels of antioxidants. Interestingly, both belong to the same family. Cranberries are rich in vitamin C, E, K and fiber. They only contain about 50 calories in a one cup serving. That assumes you eat them raw without sugar, something many find hard to do.
These bright red fruits have strong antibacterial properties and are helpful for treating urinary tract infections. Part of the reason is that they turn urine acidic and bacteria generally struggle in acidic environments. Acidity also helps prevent formation of alkaline calcium ammonium phosphate stones in the urinary tract.
Cranberries do contain significant levels of oxalates, which could contribute to Calcium oxalate stones, however. Not all kidney stones are the same. High levels of vitamin K also could be a problem for people on blood thinning medicines.
Cranberries can keep in the refrigerator for up to two months. They also freeze well. While I’ve raved about their fresh use, they are also a great addition to your favorite apple pie recipe. Add cooked cranberries to your apple sauce too. They add flavor and color. They’re super in salads too, fresh or dried.
These red morsels should be part of our diet all year, not just at Thanksgiving and Christmas, though that is when they are most plentiful. Learn to appreciate their tart flavor and give these powerful disease fighting vitamin packed fruits a spot on your table all year.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (firstname.lastname@example.org).