An American original – the cranberry

Cranberries floating in a flooded bog


Each year the United States produces a variety of fruits for commercial use. But did you know that there are only a handful of fruit options that are native to our lands?

One such native fruit is the cranberry. Chances are that when you hear the word cranberry you think of seeing those little red berries floating on a bed of water, or enjoying the sweet taste during a Thanksgiving meal. Both serve as iconic images, but there is a lot more to this berry!

History of cranberries

The history of the cranberry in North America dates all the way back to the 1500s. After discovering the berry growing wild, Native Americans used it for a variety of purposes.

Like many modern day Americans, cranberries were used as a food source. Although tart in flavor, Native Americans would often combine crushed cranberries with dried deer meat and melted fat.

Additional uses included turning the berry into a fabric dye for rugs and treating arrow wounds.

A pile of red cranberries

The term “cranberry” originates from the Pilgrim name given to the fruit, “crane berry.” Early settlers thought the berry resembled the head and the bill of a Sandhill Crane.

Cranberries were first successfully cultivated in 1816 by Captain Henry Hall of Massachusetts. According to the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association, Hall noticed that wild cranberries grew better in his bog when sand blew over them. He began replicating this process, which quickly spread to other growers.

Cranberries were first harvested in Wisconsin in 1860, near the rural town of Berlin. Since then, Wisconsin has emerged as the national leader, producing over 60 percent of all cranberries grown in the United States!

Growing cranberries

A common belief many people have is that cranberries grow in water. Although water plays an important role for both plant health and harvesting, this is a misconception.

Cranberries typically grow best in sandy soil. As a perennial plant, cranberries grow on low running vines in bogs and marshes.

In Wisconsin, the heart of cranberry production takes place in the middle of the state. Of the 21,000 acres planted in Wisconsin, Wood County tops the list with over 4,000 acres.

A Wisconsin map showing which counties produce cranberries

Image courtesy of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association

Wisconsin-grown cranberries typically flower in late June and early July. Following pollination, the berry begins to develop. Cranberries are green in color at first, but they turn red between 75 and 100 days after flowering.

Cranberry bogs are only flooded with water come harvest time, which typically occurs in late September through October. Because each berry contains a pocket of air, the berries will float to the surface when a marsh is flooded. Equipment is then used to separate the fruit from vine. After the berry has floated to the top, it’s corralled into a corner and then conveyed onto a truck.

To see a cranberry harvest in action, check out the videos below!

Although cranberry plants are resilient, Wisconsin producers will re-flood the bogs once temperatures begin to drop to freezing levels.  Each plant goes dormant during the winter season, but freezing it protects against fluctuating temperatures and drying winds. A layer of sand is added onto of the frozen plants every couple years to help provide rejuvenation.

Economic impact

The cranberry is Wisconsin’s number one fruit in both value and size. Totaling about $1 billion, the industry employs over 4,000 workers in the state.

In 2015, Wisconsin cranberry producers grew over 4.8 million barrels of the fruit. The next closest state was Massachusetts, with 2.3 million barrels. According to USDA projections, Wisconsin cranberry production is expected to increase to 5.2 million barrels in 2016.

Overall, 65 percent of cranberries grown in the U.S. remain here. On average, Americans consume nearly 400 million pounds of cranberries each year – 20 percent of which occurs during Thanksgiving week alone!

The rest of the crop is exported overseas. Foreign markets, such as China, South Korea, Germany, Poland and Mexico, all enjoy U.S. cranberries.

Be sure to follow along as we continue to highlight crops grown within our marketplace. If you haven’t already, learn about ginseng production by clicking here!