Why do we eat cranberries at Thanksgiving?

This Michigan-grown fruit hits its prime season with consumers in November.

According to University of Maine Cooperative Extension, American Indians used cranberries as a food source, to dye fabric and as medicine. The cranberry is one of only three commercially-produced fruits that are native to North America (the other two are blueberries and Concord grapes). Cranberries can actually be found from the Polar Regions to the tropics, in both hemispheres. Due to the importance of cranberries in the 1500s and their abundance, it is believed that the pilgrims and the American Indians would have eaten them at the first Thanksgiving.

Contrary to popular belief, cranberries do not actually grow in water. Cranberries grow on a low-growing, perennial vine. Cranberry vines can grow up to six feet in length and can live over 100 years. Cranberry vines prefer a habitat of bogs of made of impermeable layers of sand, peat, gravel and clay. Cranberries harvested for juice or canning, are often “wet harvested,” which means the bogs are flooded with water after the dark red, ripe berries have fallen off the vines. The ripe berries float in the water and are sucked into a machine for processing. To view a short video of a wet cranberry harvest, check out this Wonderopolis website, which is popular with K-12 educators.

Michigan has approximately 300 acres of commercially produced cranberries. The most common areas for commercial cranberry bogs are the Upper Peninsula, the Northern Lower Peninsula and Southwest Michigan. The Michigan Ag Council reports that the Michigan cranberry industry is expected to expand in the future. The Michigan Cranberry Company near Cheboygan, Michigan holds tours of their operations one day each October for consumers interested in learning more. To find Michigan cranberries sold in your region, conduct a search on www.localharvest.org, which lists several farmers markets and on-farm markets.

According to the Cranberry Institute, many health professionals recommend cranberries to support urinary health. Cranberries have a tart flavor, which can compliment the sweetness of some foods. For some unique recipes using whole, fresh cranberries, check out this link from Bon Appetit and this Canned Cranberry Orange Chutney recipe from North Carolina State University Extension. For a recipe using dried cranberries, you might consider this Apple Cranberry Crisp recipe from the University of Illinois Extension or check out the Pinterest cranberry board by MSU Extension’s Michigan Fresh campaign.

Michigan State University Extension offers a variety of educational programs to support consumers and producers interested in eating healthy and expanding Michigan’s local food system.

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