The Superfruit Sassamanash AKA: Cranberry

A THM Feature Article

Native Americans of the U.S. Northeast were the first people in this country to eat the fruit we know as cranberry.


Wikipedia says they probably introduced them to the starving English settlers in Massachusetts, who then incorporated the berries into traditional Thanksgiving feasts. Sassamanash, or cranberries, were an important ingredient in the Indians’ staple food of pemmican. They also used the colorful berries in dyes and as a medicine to help heal wounds. Today we know that cranberries contain powerful anti-clotting and anti-bacterial properties.

Cranberries and cranberry juice have been marketed as “superfruit” since the early 21st century due to the bountiful nutrient content and antioxidant qualities that have been identified in recent years (second only to blueberries amongst common fruits).

Cranberries have been found to be rich in vitamins A and C as well as dietary fiber and the minerals manganese, potassium, calcium, phosphorus and sodium. In addition, they contain vitamins E and K, along with iron, magnesium, most of the B vitamins (1, 2, 3, 5, 6 and 9), lutein, zeaxanthin and beta-carotene.

The tart little cranberry is under active research as a source of polyphenol antioxidants which benefit the cardiovascular and immune systems, and are possible anti-cancer agents. Cranberry juice has been found to be effective against urinary tract infections, as the juice of cranberry produces hippuric acid in the urine and prevents bacteria from adhering to the walls of the bladder.

The juice is also a tooth protector as again it prevents bacteria from sticking to the teeth, helping to prevent the formation of dental plaques. The proanthocyanidins in cranberry are compounds which inhibit the growth of various cancer cells.

Cranberry is a member of the Ericaceae family and is related to the bilberry, blueberry and huckleberry. The word cranberry was derived from ‘craneberry,’ the name used by the early American settlers because they thought the expanding flower, stem, calyx and petals resembled the neck, head and bill of a crane.

Cranberries are low, creeping evergreen shrubs up to seven feet long and two to eight inches high, with flowers larger than the leaves. The fruit was also sometimes called ‘bearberry,’ because bears were often seen feasting on them.

Roger Williams referred to ‘bearberries in his 1640s book, Key Into the Language.

In the book, The Land of Virginia, one passage describes Europeans coming ashore and being met by Indians offering gifts of containers filled with cranberries. But preacher John Elliot’s 1648 book, Clear Sunshine of the Gospel, complains that the pilgrims were already having a difficult time persuading the natives to gather enough cranberries to meet the pilgrims’ needs because Indians much preferred fishing and hunting. Nevertheless, according to Wikipedia, in 1667 New Englanders sent to King Charles “10 barrels of cranberries, 3 barrels of codfish and some Indian corn as a means of appeasement for the king’s anger over their local coining of the Pine Tree shilling.”

The first published recipe for cranberry sauce appeared in the Pilgrim Cookbook in 1663. Slowly knowledge and appreciation of the cranberry expanded beyond local pioneer circles, and in 1703 fresh cranberries were served at the Harvard University commencement dinner.

Up until 1760 when the first small plot of cultivated cranberries was grown by James Gordon to sell to friends and neighbors, cranberries were harvested in the wild. Henry Hall presented the world with the first commercial cranberry plantation in 1816 on Cape Cod in Massachusetts and began shipping in the U.S. and to Europe. Also on Cape Cod, Eli Howes began a commercial operation in 1843.

Commercial cranberry development has come a long way since the humble beginnings of those hardy pioneer entrepreneurs more than 150 years ago. Today cranberry dishes are served at most holiday meals and recipes are included in almost all complete cookbooks.

Most cranberries are processed into juice, jam, sauce, sweetened dried cranberries, powder for supplements and the rest sold fresh to consumers. As of 2006, 65 percent of the North American industry is owned by the Ocean Spray cooperative.

The remaining processers include Cliffstar Corporation, Northland Cranberries, Clement Pappas and Co. and Decas Cranberry Products. There are also a number of small producers, including organic growers.

According to, cranberries are produced commercially in only a few states. Massachusetts and Wisconsin are by far the largest producers, with New Jersey, Oregon, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota and Washington in the second tier. The cranberry harvest is measured in barrels, with each barrel weighing 100 pounds. In 2011, the U.S. harvest was 7.74 million barrels.

Other countries where different varieties of cranberry are grown include several provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, southern Chile, northern Asia, Russia, the Nordic countries, Baltic States and New Zealand. However, the U.S. is still the largest commercial producer.

Cranberry beds used to be constructed in wetlands. But today they are constructed in upland areas with a shallow water table. The topsoil is scraped off to form dykes around the bed perimeter. Clean sand is hauled in and the surface is leveled flat to provide even drainage. Cranberry vines are propagated by moving vines from an established bed. The cost of establishing a new cranberry bed is approximately a whopping $28,300 per acre.

Unfortunately, cranberries are one of the most difficult crops to grow organically, so organic suppliers of cranberries must pay a premium price to ensure that their food, juices and supplements are free of contaminants.

Organic growers face several obstacles, including weed susceptibility, insect pests, fruit rot and other fruit quality issues, as well as a significant reduction in yield compared to conventional cranberries, according to the University of Wisconsin in Madison. UW points out that many growers have made great efforts in growing organic cranberries, but have given up because of yield loss and other costs associated with organic production.

In spite of all the problems and expense, however, dedicated organic farmers who are aware of the extraordinary nutritional and medicinal qualities of cranberries grown in rich organic soil are slowly expanding their beds in response to growing consumer knowledge and demand.

There’s a very good reason to support the efforts of those determined organic growers. According to Rodale Institute (Amanda Kimble-Evans), one of the most common toxins sprayed on cranberry bogs, chlorpyrifos, is a known endocrine disrupter, linked to serious developmental damages even in “safe” low-dose amounts. In addition, says Rodale, organic farming boosts the antioxidant content of cranberries by as much as 30 percent over conventional farming.

Sources for this article include: Wikipedia, Rodale Institute, University of Wisconsin and

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