Fascinating facts: cranberries

From survival food to Christmas stalwart and superfood, cranberries have plenty of uses - and they're great garden plants too

Botanical name: Vaccinium oxycoccos, Vaccinium macrocarpon.

Origins: The common cranberry, Vaccinium oxycoccos, can be found growing wild in the marshlands of northern and central Europe, but its larger American cousin, Vaccinium macrocarpon, is the species that is more commonly cultivated.

First cultivated Captain Henry Hall became the first person to commercially cultivate cranberries in Dennis, Massachusetts in 1816.

Types: Popular varieties to grow in the UK include 'Early Black', 'Pilgrim', 'Redstar' and 'Stevens'.

Skill level: Easy to grow. These hardy plants require very little attention once established, as long as you can provide the right soil conditions.

Preferred location and conditions: Cranberries require moist, acidic, lime-free soil, ideally at pH level 4.5. They prefer a sunny site and thrive beside a river or pond but can also grow well in pots.

Good for containers: Yes, particularly the 'Pilgrim' and 'Redstar' varieties.

Harvest time: Plants should start to fruit prolifically from the third year. They are ready to harvest from September and should be picked before the first frost.

Possible problems: Cranberries are resistant to most pests and diseases; most problems are caused by incorrect moisture levels or the pH level (acidity/alkalinity) of the soil. Where birds are a problem, netting can be used to protect the plants.

Health benefits: Cranberries are considered a superfood, thanks to their high nutritional content and wide-ranging health benefits. They’re particularly high in disease-fighting antioxidants, outranking almost every other fruit and vegetable (including spinach and broccoli). They’re rich in vitamins C, A and K as well as flavonoids, which help lower the risk of heart problems.

Most commonly known as a popular remedy for cystitis, they are also anti-inflammatory, helping to prevent arthritis, cardiovascular disease and strokes. They contribute to good cholesterol and can help lower blood pressure. Cranberries are naturally low in calories, fat and sodium.

Potted history

Cranberries were widely used as food and medicine by the Native Americans who ate them fresh, ground, mashed, baked into bread as well as making tea from the leaves. By mashing them with deer meat they made ‘pemmican’, a survival food for fur traders during the winter months.

The Native Americans introduced the first European settlers to the cranberry, who initially named them crane-berries, as the flowers reminded them of the head, neck and bill of a crane. In 1667, the New Englanders sent a gift to appease King Charles II, which included ten barrels of the berries.

The high vitamin C content provided a natural remedy for scurvy and barrels of the berries were once stored on American sailing ships to maintain the health of the crew. In 1796, cranberries were served at the first celebration of the landing of the Pilgrims, and cranberry sauce has remained a staple of the traditional Thanksgiving dinner ever since.

Captain Henry Hall was the first person to commercially grow cranberries in on Cape Cod, Massachusetts in 1816, and the state remains one of the largest cranberry producers in the USA.

Why grow cranberries?

For year-round colour in the garden, the cranberry takes some beating. The green foliage transforms into rich yellows and reds during the autumn months, while the delicate pink flowers of summer give way to glossy red berries that have become synonymous with Christmas. A traditional turkey Christmas dinner wouldn’t be quite the same without cranberry sauce, and the berries add a splash of festive colour to wreaths and natural table decorations.

Cranberries can last for weeks in the fridge, and they also freeze well so can be enjoyed at any time of year, adding a tart, fruity note to cakes, biscuits and muffins. Crammed full of vitamins and nutrients, these plump, juicy berries are exceptionally good for you.

Text provided by Mr Fothergill's.

RHS Grow Your Own

RHS advice: How to grow cranberries

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