Cel­e­brat­ing the cran­berry

Fruit na­tive to North Amer­ica en­joys a rich his­tory

The Standard (St. Catharines) - - Arts & Life - THERESA FORTE Spe­cial to The St. Catharines Stan­dard

We cel­e­brated Thanks­giv­ing with our West Coast crew and part of the fun in­cluded a visit to Fort Lan­g­ley’s 23rd an­nual Cran­berry Fes­ti­val.

The weather was pic­ture per­fect for brows­ing ven­dor booths, food trucks, lo­cal shops and, of course, a visit to the old fort with sta­tions for cran­berry stomp­ing, bead­ing, and bak­ing cran­berry ban­nock over an open fire. Or­ga­niz­ers were an­tic­i­pat­ing about 60,000 peo­ple, and given Satur­day’s fab­u­lous weather and teem­ing streets, I’d say their num­bers were up this year.

Why cel­e­brate the cran­berry? Along with blue­ber­ries and Con­cord grapes, the cran­berry is one of a hand­ful of ma­jor fruits na­tive to North Amer­ica. Dubbed the ‘crane-berry’ by early Dutch and Ger­man set­tlers for the flow­ers’ re­sem­blance to the neck and head of crane, the name even­tu­ally was short­ened to cran­berry.

Cran­ber­ries were a sta­ple food for many In­dige­nous peo­ple, and the cul­ti­va­tion of cran­ber­ries can be traced back some 200 years. Cran­ber­ries were used to make a sur­vival cake known as pem­mi­can. The fruit was also used in poul­tices and dyes.

The first doc­u­mented cran­berry har­vest was in 1816 in Den­nis, Mass., but the lowly cran­berry also can trace a rich his­tory in Bri­tish Columbia.

Fort Lan­g­ley, es­tab­lished by the Hud­son Bay Co. on the banks of the Fraser River in 1827, was an im­por­tant trad­ing post, and in 1858 be­came the home of Bri­tish Columbia. Cran­ber­ries traded with na­tives were packed into bar­rels and shipped to San Fran­cisco for sale. In 1858, cran­ber­ries were ac­tu­ally worth more in trade than salmon. Cran­ber­ries, an im­por­tant source of vitamin C, were eaten by sailors to pre­vent scurvy.

Com­pris­ing about 12 per cent of the North Amer­i­can crop, cran­ber­ries are gown in the lower Fraser Val­ley and on Van­cou­ver Is­land. Cul­ti­va­tion in B.C. be­gan in 1946 when Jack Bell, fol­low­ing five years as a pi­lot in the Royal Cana­dian Air Force, be­came the first com­mer­cial grower of cran­ber­ries. He planted 1.2 hectares. To­day, 80 grow­ers pro­duce some 750,000 bar­rels

(one bar­rel equals 45 kilo­grams) of cran­ber­ries an­nu­ally.

Hardy cran­berry vines thrive in con­di­tions that would not sup­port many other crops: acidic soil, few nu­tri­ents and low tem­per­a­tures, even in sum­mer. It takes one ton or more of cran­berry vines per acre to plant a bog.

Cran­berry blos­soms last 10 to 12 days and rely on bees, brought in by the farmer; two hives per acre, with 30,000 to 40,000 bees per hive are needed to pol­li­nate the crop. Con­trary to pop­u­lar be­lief, cran­ber­ries do not grow in wa­ter, they are grown on sandy bogs or marshes. Be­cause cran­ber­ries float, some bogs are flooded when the fruit is ready for har­vest­ing.

Plant­ing a cran­berry bog is very labour in­ten­sive. Pruned stems (cut­tings), or rooted cut­tings (plugs) are planted in a care­fully groomed field. Grow­ers must man­age a newly planted bog for the first three years; it takes about five years and care­ful man­age­ment be­fore a bog will reap a full crop.

Cran­ber­ries are a peren­nial crop and can be pro­duc­tive for decades. Some of the fields in B.C. are as much as 30 years old and are man­aged by third- and fourth-gen­er­a­tion farm­ers. The bogs must be ren­o­vated pe­ri­od­i­cally by adding sand, re­new­ing drainage, re­plac­ing ir­ri­ga­tion equip­ment and re­plant­ing prob­lem ar­eas.

Cran­ber­ries grow on low ly­ing vines in beds lay­ered with sand and peat soil. These vines pro­duce run­ners from which short up­right branches form. The cran­berry har­vest takes place once a year, from Septem­ber through the end of Oc­to­ber. There are two meth­ods of har­vest­ing, dry har­vest and wet har­vest.

For dry har­vest­ing, berries are har­vested with a mech­a­nized pick­ing ma­chine that looks like a giant lawn mower. Dry har­vested fruit is “combed” by this ma­chine as it moves up and down the cran­berry bog. The fruit is loaded into bins and shipped to re­ceiv­ing sta­tions where it is cleaned and pack­aged as fresh fruit. Cran­ber­ries sold as fresh berries are the ones you will find in the pro­duce aisle of your lo­cal gro­cery store. Sur­pris­ingly, only one per cent of the crop is used for fresh berries. The rest of the crop is used for juice and dried fruit.

For wet har­vest­ing, the bogs are flooded with wa­ter. I’ve seen the amaz­ing seas of red fruit from the win­dow of a plane as we flew over the cran­berry bogs in Rich­mond, B.C. — it’s quite a sight.

The field is flooded with six to eight inches of wa­ter, then, the fruit is “beaten” off the vine with a spe­cial­ized har­vester called a beater that re­minds me of the wheel of pad­dle­boat. The beater ag­i­tates the wa­ter and loosens the berries from the vine. The float­ing fruit is then cor­ralled and loaded onto trucks for de­liv­ery to the re­ceiv­ing sta­tion for clean­ing. Berries will be fur­ther pro­cessed for juice, sweet­ened dried cran­ber­ries or sauces/ jel­lies.

Cran­ber­ries have four air pock­ets in­side them. This al­lows the cran­ber­ries to float to the sur­face dur­ing the wet har­vest op­er­a­tion. White cran­ber­ries are cran­ber­ries har­vested a few weeks early be­fore they turn red.

More than 95 per cent of cran­ber­ries grown by B.C. grow­ers are shipped to the U.S. for use in Ocean Spray prod­ucts such as juice and Craisins. Ocean Spray is a grower-owned co­op­er­a­tive in­clud­ing the B.C. grow­ers.

When you buy Ocean Spray prod­ucts you are sup­port­ing Cana­dian cran­berry grow­ers.

Theresa Forte is a lo­cal gar­den writer, pho­tog­ra­pher and speaker. You can reach her by call­ing 905351-7540 or by email­ing there­sa_­forte@sym­pa­tico.ca.

THERESA FORTE SPE­CIAL TO THE ST. CATHARINES STAN­DARD

A cran­berry field is flooded with wa­ter, then the fruit is “beaten” off the vine with a spe­cial­ized har­vester called a beater that ag­i­tates the wa­ter and loosens the berries from the vine. The float­ing fruit is then cor­ralled and loaded onto trucks for de­liv­ery to the re­ceiv­ing sta­tion for clean­ing.

Buy­ing bags of freshly har­vested cran­ber­ries at the Fort Lan­g­ley Cran­berry Fes­ti­val to take home.

Cran­ber­ries are grown on fam­ily farms in the lower Fraser Val­ley and on Van­cou­ver Is­land in Bri­tish Columbia.

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