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Cranberry's Historical Usage

One of the few fruits native to North America, cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) have been used by Native Americans as a staple for centuries. It belongs to the Heath or Heather family (Ericaceae), the berries grown naturally in swamps and bogs. Cranberries were eaten fresh, ground, or mashed with cornmeal and baked it into bread. Native Americans also mixed berries with wild game and melted fat to form pemmican, a survival ration for the winter months and a trail food for journeys. Cranberries contain a natural preservative (benzoic acid) which extends shelf life. Maple sugar or honey was used to sweeten the berry's tangy flavor. Early European settlers learned cranberries' many uses from the Native Americans as early as 1620.

Seafarers carried cranberries onboard to prevent scurvy, while Native Americans brewed cranberry poultices to draw poison from arrow wounds. They drank cranberry as a tea to calm nerves, used the berry to ward off indigestion, as well as using the juice as a dye. Cranberries and cranberry juice have long been used to treat urinary tract infections as well (See HC 081221-455).

First commercially canned in 1912 by Ocean Spray, cranberry sauce was used during the Civil War when General Ulysses S. Grant ordered it served to the troops during the siege of Petersburg in 1864.

In addition to a food staple, the Lenni-Lenape Indians of New Jersey used cranberry as a symbol of peace and friendship. They called it "ibimi" meaning "bitter berry." Chippawas called the cranberry "a'ni-bimin," the Algonquin called it "atoqua," and the Narragansetts called it "sasemineash." One theory as to how "cranberry" received its most common name is that Germany and Dutch settlers named the berry "crane-berry" or "kranbeere" because it appeared to be the favorite food of cranes or because the blossom resembles the head and neck of an English crane. In Canada, cranberries are often referred to by their First Nation name, atoca. Cranberries are also known as bounceberries, because they bounce if dropped when fresh, and bearberry, since bears also enjoy eating them.

Lori Glenn,  Managing Editor