Cranberries are one of the few fruits that are native to North America. British Columbia cranberry farmers account for 20% of the world's cranberry harvest. A unique combination of sandy topsoil, peat moss, and acidic water combines to create marshy land (known as bogs) that is perfect to successfully grow these delicious red berries. Wonder how they obtain any nutrients? The plants absorb organic nitrogen to use for growth. Smart little plants!
Despite popular belief, cranberries are not grown underwater. They grow on vines, much like strawberries. However, unlike strawberries or blueberries, they do not sweeten as they ripen. Instead, their natural tart flavor remains the same whether the berry is white (in its maturing phase) or deep red (when ripe).
Speaking of ripening, one vine will have two crops growing at once, making a special challenge for farmers. While the current crop is growing and ripening, the buds for the next harvest will be sprouting. Sixteen months will lapse between bud and harvest for each crop. For many years, harvesting meant back-breaking manual labour of hand-picking each berry. During the 1960s, farmers discovered flooding the fields with water and using special beaters to knock the fruit from the vine made harvesting easier.
That's how the pictures of farmers standing in knee-high water surrounded by red berries came to be. Flooding the fields actually occurs twice a year. The fruit is protected from frost or freezes through winter by flooding the bogs in December. When spring arrives, the fields are drained and the plants dry out to continue growing. The bogs will be flooded once again the night before the harvest in late fall.
Flooding only works with cranberries because the fruit has four air chambers within it, meaning it will float. Using equipment nicknamed an "egg beater" to knock the fruit off the vine so it floats to the surface is the simplest means of harvesting. Workers then begin the task of corralling all the berries together by wading through the water with large wood or plastic booms. Once corralled they are transferred to a loading area where they will be loaded onto conveyor belts into trucks and taken to a processing location.
This method is called wet harvesting and is used for about 85% of all cranberry harvesting. As you would expect, this is rather harsh on the tender fruit. Therefore, the berries harvested in this manner will be used for juice products, sauces, and ingredients in other products.
Dry harvesting is used to provide fresh cranberries for markets. Workers pulling mechanical rakes with long metal prongs will rake berries off the vines. The berries are then elevated into bags. The fruit is taken from the bog by vehicle or helicopter to receiving stations and prepared for local grocery stores.
Fresh cranberries are used primarily during the holidays, but that doesn't have to be. To have "fresh" cranberries in June, simply purchase whole cranberries in November, freeze them in a single layer on a cookie sheet, then pop them in freezer bags to use at any time in the future. The fruit will maintain its nutritional value for several years once frozen.
When it comes to nutritional value, cranberries were used for medicinal purposes by Native Americans long before Europeans found the New World. Cranberries are one of the highest fruits in anti-oxidants. They protect our cells against damage from free-radicals. They are also an excellent source of Vitamin C, manganese, and fiber. With only 46 calories per cup of fresh cranberries, they will not ruin your diet if used for snacking, provided you enjoy the tartness. Their nutritional value is highest in raw form, but consuming any form of whole cranberries will be beneficial so long as they are not over processed and loaded with sugar.
While there are few negative side effects for cranberries, be aware that if you take Warfarin (Coumadin) could enhance the effects of the drug and increase bleeding. For that reason, it's best not to consume large amounts of cranberries or their by-products. Keeping in mind the old adage of "all good things in moderation", you can still enjoy the occasional consumption of this wonderful superfood.