Elise Krohn, Wild Foods and Medicines Program Director
Cranberries are the jewels of coastal and mountain bogs. These tiny, low-growing, woody plants are often hidden in moss and can be difficult to spot unless they are flowering or have fruit. They have evergreen leaves and graceful pink flowers that resemble cranes, hence the name “cranberry.” Round, ruby-colored berries are ripe in fall through winter. They are sweetest when gathered after the first frost.
Cranberry is a relative of the blueberry and grows in cool regions of the northern hemisphere including North America, Europe, and Russia. Vaccinium oxycoccus, or small cranberry, is native to the Pacific Northwest. Vaccinium macrocarpum, or large cranberry, is native to the northeastern United States and is grown commercially. You can visit cranberry bogs along the Oregon and Washington Coast. Grayland, WA has a cranberry museum and an annual cranberry festival in October. It is worth a trip to see the beautiful red fruits floating in the bogs and learn about how they are grown and harvested!
Cranberries can be eaten fresh, but their tart flavor is greatly improved with cooking and sweetening. Native Americans in Northern areas have long prized cranberries, and Northeast tribes sometimes cooked them with maple sugar to sweeten them. Northwest Native People traditionally stored cranberries in damp moss throughout the winter so they stayed fresh until spring. They were also picked green and stored in boxes or baskets until they turned soft and red.
Cranberry is a favorite relish for accompanying turkey and other meats, but it is delicious in many other dishes as well. It is tasty in salad dressing, desserts, breads, jams, and jellies. The berries are high in pectin, so when you cook them, they become thick.
Cranberry Rosehip Sauce
From Elizabeth Campbell (Spokane/Kalispel)
1 12 oz. bag of cranberries
1 cup apple cider (raspberry if available)
½ cup orange juice or 1 teaspoon of orange zest
½ cup of dried deseeded rosehips, ground in a coffee grinder
4–8 tablespoons honey, sugar, or other sweetener
In a medium-sized pan heat cranberries, cider, and orange juice until they come to a boil and the cranberries pop open. Stir in rosehips and sweetener. Remove from heat and let the sauce thicken as it cools. Add more cider to thin consistency if necessary.
Cranberry Orange Bread (Adapted from Cape Cod Wampanoag Cookbook)
This hearty bread will make your mouth water when you smell it cooking. It is both a sweet treat and a wholesome snack.
2 cups all purpose flour or 1 cup all purpose flour and 1 cup whole wheat flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, melted
1 cup sugar or xylitol sweetener
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup milk (hazelnut, rice or cow)
1 cup chopped walnuts or hazelnuts
1 cup chopped cranberries, fresh or frozen
Preheat oven to 350. Grease a 4.5 by 8.5 inch bread pan with butter. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt. In another bowl, beat butter, sugar, and eggs together until smooth. Zest the orange by grating it to remove the outer rind. Juice the orange into a measuring cup. Add enough milk to the orange juice to equal 1 cup of liquid. Stir the grated orange rind, cup of orange juice/milk, and vanilla extract into the egg mixture. Fold this into the flour mixture. Gently fold in the nuts and cranberries. Pour into the greased bread pan and bake for 50-60 minutes.
Cook time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.
Cranberry is loaded with vitamin C, antioxidants, and flavonoids that boost immunity and strengthen our cardiovascular system. Our Wild Foods and Medicines team is often amazed at how nature provides foods that we need to stay healthy just when we need them, for example cranberries in the cold and flu season.
Cranberry is also valued for its ability to prevent bladder and urinary tract infections. Most cranberry juice on the market is heavily sweetened. Because sugar weakens immune function, unsweetened or lightly sweetened cranberry juice is recommended. Bitter compounds in cranberry stimulate the secretion of digestive juices. Blueberry and huckleberry juice have similar medicine.
If you have a wet place in your yard, you can grow your own cranberries! They will grow in sandy, peat, or clay soil if the soil is acidic and form a nice evergreen groundcover. You can grow them in mostly peat with a little bit of soil. Burnt Ridge Nursery sells cranberry plants.
References and Additional Resources
Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons
Wild Berries of Washington and Oregon by T. Abe Lloyd and Fiona Chambers
Tend, Gather and Grow Curriculum, Wild Edible Berries Module