Cranberries! The Story of a Berry
Bill Long 11/27/04
In Honor of Donna Sinclair
While on my return trip from Long Beach, WA to my home in Salem, OR, I stopped at the Northwest's only Cranberry Museum, a smallish structure run by the Pacific Coast Cranberry Research Foundation. Formerly a research facility owned by Washington State University, the Foundation has run the property, including its experimental cranberry fields, since 1993. Though I didn't want to get bogged down in lots of scientific details, I found the museum and the culture of cranberry production fascinating.
The cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon, is cultivated in five states of the US (MA, NJ, WI, OR, and WA) and in British Columbia. The crop is only valued at about $60 million per year, and 25% of that crop is cultivated in the 8,000 acres of OR, WA and BC. Washington produces 20% of the West Coast cranberries in Long Beach and Grayland, so the annual value of WA state cranberry production is about $3-$4 million. Ocean Spray makes contracts with 99% of the growers. Though there are only a few hundred cranberry growers in the NW, there is a even a cranberry "Chamber of Commerce." Color them real red, even though they are in blue states!
Cranberries were known to the Massachusetts Indians long before the pilgrims, and the story goes that the Indians used cranberries both as juice dyes for rugs as well as an ingredient, along with dried venison and fat, to make pemmican cakes. Cranberry poultices were used to draw venom from arrow wounds. Legend also has it that the pilgrims named the berry "crane berry" at first, because the head of the bloom droops like a crane.
A Detour Through Art
One of the more striking paintings by the 19th century American painter Eastman Johnson (1824-1906) is his 1880 "The Cranberry Harvest, Island of Nantucket." Owned by the Timken Museum in San Diego (where there are 0 cranberries grown), the painting marks a major shift in American landscape painting. Before Johnson one had either the human-sized paintings of the Hudson River School of the early-mid 19th century and the dramatic romantic vistas of Albert Bierstadt/Thomas Moran in the mid-late 19th century. What Johnson did, through his portrait of cranberry pickers, is to create an evocative landscape, to be sure, but to put realistic humans at labor in the picture. Thus, he moves beyond both Cole and Bierstadt, drawing on their skill in landscape painting, but infusing it with a realistic dimension. Interesting, isn't it, that the little cranberry becomes the vehicle for a change in American landscape representation?
From Art to Science
Though cranberries were cultivated in WA beginning in the 1870s, there was no attention to the science of cranberry growing. In addition, because of frequent freezes in WA in the early part of the cranberry season, the crop was often destroyed by frost even before it really took root. Enter Mr. D. J. Crowley, the first "Specialist in Cranberry Investigation," who administered the WSU facility beginning for around 30 years beginning in 1923. His major contribution was in devising a means by which cranberries could survive the frosts of late winter/early Spring. He discovered that if he set up overhead sprinklers and turned them on when the air temperature reached 34 degrees, the water would turn to ice and act as a preservative/protective layer over the plants to prevent them from freezing.*
[*Note--a law student of mine, Shala McKenzie, from a third-generation cranberry growing family, has corrected the previous statement. She writes, "The reason we use sprinklers to keep the plants from freezing is that is creates moving water. Moving water does not freeze and therefore ice does not form on the plants. If ice were to form it would ruin the blossum before it had a chance to develop by making it heavy and breaking it off. Thus sadly there would be no berry created and coming from someone who's livlihood and law school education has been supported by cranberry dollars, this makes for a very bad year." Thank you, Shala.]
A fascinating "find" for me was an brief oral history of Crowley (two tapes, 55 minutes) conducted in 1973 by Azmi Shawa.
A second scientific development with respect to the cranberry was the 1940s invention of the "Furfold Picker," named after WA resident Julius Furford. Prior to 1940 all pictures of cranberry harvesters are of people hunched over or sitting down plucking cranberries one at a time from the vines. Yet, the "Furford Picker," which looks like a tall lawn mover, not only picked the cranberries but pruned the vines at the same time. Every harvester to this day uses the picker for dry field harvesting.
Conclusion--The Cranberry and Medicinal Usages
One issue that has been the source of hot controversy among medical professionals is the extent to which consumption of cranberries can help with urinary infections and retention/release of urine. Inconclusive study piled upon inconclusive study until the mid-1990s, when the New England Journal of Medicine published a study of Harvard Medical School researchers, where more than 150 elderly female volunteers who averaged one urinary tract infection (UTI) per year were divided into two groups. Half were given 300mL of cranberry juice cocktail per day and half were given a placebo. The study provided the first good clinical evidence in a large sampling of patients that cranberry juice could be beneficial to the urinary tract, especially in preventing UTIs. Voila.
Thus, as I headed home from my two days of "rest" on the Long Beach Peninsula, I felt a deep surge of gratitude for friends, for learning, for health and for the cool, crisp and moist air of the Pacific Northwest. Without the latter, there would have been no occasion for me to go cranberry-crazy today. But I am the richer for it, even if I resisted the cranberry candy bar at the museum shop.