Cranberry Blog

23 11 2009

Tart and unassuming the humble cranberry will once again take second seat to many Thanksgiving turkeys this year, but they have certainly earned a spot at every American Thanksgiving table, and to omit them from this harvest celebration would be extremely unconventional.  I had a chance to learn a bit more about our favorite seasonal side dish firsthand at a talk at Nantucket’s Whaling Museum in Fall 2008 given by second generation cranberry farmer Tom Larrabee Jr.  His father has worked in Nantucket’s bogs since he was a teenager and has managed them since 1959.

Cranberries were first harvested in Dennis, Massachusetts (Cape Cod) in 1816 by Henry Hall.  Named for the resemblance of its flowers to the head of a crane, early producers discovered that the vine, closely related to the blueberry, was an ideal mate for the Massachusetts geography.  Their presence at the Thanksgiving meal is likely due to the fact that this was also a symbol of peace to Native Americans.  Cranberries enjoy peat bogs which provide moisture for the vines during the growing season, but they also benefit from covering the vines with sand.  Sand stimulates new growth of the roots, controls insects and prevents the disintegrating peat from being toxic to the plant.  The third requirement is fresh water for frost protection, irrigation and since the 1980’s harvesting.  As a result in 1857 settlers of Nantucket Island, 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, decided that planting cranberries on the peat marshes off of Milestone Road would be a good idea.  Cranberries had already garnered a great reputation for seafarers as their presence on ships prevented sailors from getting scurvy due to their high content of Vitamin C.  Cranberries still have these wonderful health benefits and in addition an incredible amount of antioxidants and an antiseptic nature that allows them to be useful to prevent bladder infections and eradicate E. Coli.

From that moment, the cranberry and Nantucket seemed a perfect pair.  Despite the fact that Nantucket produces much less than Wisconsin (the largest U.S. producer), those that know the island think of it as a hub of production.  Currently Nantucket has about 250 acres of cranberry bogs and 25 of the 37 acres in the Windswept Bog are organically grown producing 1/2 a million pounds of organic cranberries in 2008.  Production of organic berries typically yields 60-70% less than conventional production and takes a lot more effort, but organic berries garner three times the price of conventional berries.  Since 1968 the Nantucket Conservation Foundation has stewarded the island’s two commercial bogs.

Cranberry harvest begins in September with Early Black, dark blackish red berries, and continues through October and November with the Howes cranberry, a lighter red and more oblong shaped berry.  Because of the floating nature of the berries, flood harvesting has been the preferred method since the 1980s, and has become a familiar site to most of us from Ocean Spray commercials.  One of the challenges for cranberry production on island is coordinating picking schedules with the ferry boat schedule as processing of berries is off-island which should ideally be three to five days before freezing.  Another crucial ingredient for successful cranberry production remains bees.  The flowers at bloom produce very heavy pollen that prevents vines from self-pollination by wind, so 432 hives are brought in to do the deed.  These bees pollinate Maine’s blueberries in May and then head to Nantucket for prime time at the end of June through July.  The bees are late risers and active from about 10am until 5 or 6pm, and while they are busy at work farmers stay out of the bogs until berry set.  Bees arrive on one truck but leave the island on two trucks after their plentiful pollen eating and even provide another great local product, Nantucket cranberry honey.  Berries turn green then white and finally blush to red close to harvest time.

Cranberries are useful for more than sauce, and a suggestion from Tom is to keep the berries frozen when you use them in baking to allow them to better keep their shape.

My favorite sandwich from Nantucket takes advantage of the cranberry history and is perfect for Thanksgiving left-overs, it’s called the “Turkey Terrific” produced by Provisions 3 Harbor Square Nantucket 508 228-3258.  While Provisions is closed for the winter you can make it at home, use a good roll, sliced turkey, left over stuffing and a good slathering of cranberry sauce.  And if you are at my house you would have to fight over using sauce versus the gelatinous canned cranberry jelly, my husband prefers the latter, so we always serve both.

See Tom Larrabee Jr. and the harvest at



2 responses

23 11 2009

Very nice article. Got me in the mood for Turkey…

21 03 2010
Florida Herb House

Cranberries are a phytochemical powerhouses packed with five times the antioxidant content of broccoli. When compared to 19 other common fruits, cranberries were found to contain the highest level of antioxidants.

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