Native Americans of the northeast and Canada called them ‘peace berries’ and gave them to other tribes as a token of amicable intentions. The berries were prized for use in dyes, in poultices to treat arrow wounds, and as an ingredient in the winter survival food pemmican. When the Pilgrims arrived on Massachusetts shores in 1620, they were given peace berries by the local tribe. Finding the raw berries too tart for their tastes, Pilgrim women boiled them into a sauce, using a recipe for barberry sauce which they had known from England. The resulting berry sauce was very nice with venison and wildfowl. They soon discovered that it helped stave off the scurvy which had plagued them on the long journey to their new home, too. Like the Native Americans, the settlers collected quantities of the berries from the local bogs. Because the tiny pinkish blossoms of the plant resembled a bird’s head to them, they called them ‘crane berries.’
Contrary to popular belief, cranberries do not like saturated growing conditions. The images we have seen of harvesters in hip waders raking cranberries floating on the surface of flooded bogs have led to the misconception that cranberries grow in pools of water like rice or pond lilies. However, the bogs are only flooded at harvest time to float the ripe berries off the plants and make them easier to collect on a commercial scale. Fortunately a home gardener doesn’t need a bog to grow these ruby delights.
Which is not to say that they’ll grow in regular garden soil. They need a highly acid soil, and in particular they need the mycorrhizae (fungi that live symbiotically with plants and help them to take up nutrients) that are specific to peat moss. So the first thing you have to do if you want to grow cranberries is to remove the soil in the bed to a depth of six inches and replace it with a 50/50 mix of peat moss and coarse sand. Add some bonemeal, bloodmeal, Epsom salts, and rock phosphate to provide the nutrients the plants will need to establish themselves, water the mixture well, and put in one plant per four square feet. Cranberries spread by runners, so if you put in three plants, you’ll have a 4′ x 8′ bed full of cranberries by the third year. This fall, I picked about five pounds of fruit from my relatively small patch.
I like to can my own whole-berry cranberry sauce, and I make cranapple butter to spread on toasted English muffins. Dried cranberries get stirred into oatmeal or added to the stuffing for baked acorn squash. But my favorite way to use them is in cran-orange pecan scones. Just a warning: these are addictive!
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly butter a 10-inch-diameter circle in the center of a baking sheet. In a small bowl, stir together half a cup of chopped fresh cranberries and 2 tablespoons of sugar. Let stand about five minutes.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, stir together 2 cups all purpose flour, one-quarter cup of sugar, 2 teaspoons of baking powder, and half a teaspoon of salt (if desired). Cut a half cup of butter into small cubes and distribute over the flour mixture. Using a pastry blender or two knives used scissors fashion, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. In a small bowl, stir together 2 large eggs, 2 tablespoons of orange juice, 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract and half a teaspoon of grated orange peel. Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and stir to combine. The dough will be sticky. With lightly floured hands, knead in the cranberry mixture and half a cup of chopped pecans until evenly distributed. Pat the dough into a 9-inch-diameter circle in the center of the prepared baking sheet.
Brush an egg glaze (1 egg white mixed with half a teaspoon of water) over the top and sides of the dough. With a serrated knife, cut into 8 wedges. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a scone comes out clean. Remove the baking sheet to a wire rack and cool for 5 minutes. Using a spatula, transfer the scones to the wire rack to cool. Recut into wedges, if necessary. Serve warm, or cool completely and store in an airtight container. These freeze well. Recipe makes 8 scones.