CRANBERRIES ARE A TRUE AMERICAN HOLIDAY TREAT

by Whit Gibbons

December 20, 2015

When Americans celebrate the holiday season from Thanksgiving through Christmas, iconic foods immediately come to mind - apple pie, pumpkin pie, sweet potatoes. And, of course, cranberries. But if you want a truly American meal, you can dump the first three, because only cranberries are native to the United States.

Apples? Whether the first ones came to our shores with the Pilgrims or with earlier emigrants from England, France or Spain is uncertain. But that apples are native to Asia is an accepted fact.

Was Johnny Appleseed distributing an alien invasive species? Apples taste good and remain edible for a long time, so the fruit rapidly became popular in colonial times.

Also, apple trees grow well in many regions and by the time of the Revolutionary War thousands of varieties had been produced by early agriculturists. Apples are here to stay but were not a major part of the holiday meals of the first settlers.

What about pumpkins? Pumpkin pie is considered by many Americans to be traditional holiday fare. According to botanical scientific literature, pumpkins were one of the many forms of squash derived from wild gourds that probably originated primarily in Mexico. They were already being cultivated when Columbus arrived in 1492, and 1542 records indicate that pumpkins were being grown in Europe.

Sweet potatoes, another standard for U.S. holidays, may have the most questionable origins. Tropical America and Indonesia have both been suggested as the original home of the sweet potato. But in either case, like apples and pumpkins, they did not originate in what is now the United States.

Cranberries, which are related to blueberries, are a completely different story, being part of the native flora of eastern Canada, and the northeastern and north central United States.

The woody vines grow naturally in acidic bogs. The original name "craneberry," eventually shortened to "cranberry," stems from the flower's resemblance to the head of a common and distinctive native bird, the sandhill crane. Early colonists would have been aware of the cranes, and the little flowers having what look like long beaks and red heads on a curved neck would be obvious. Check out pictures of cranberry flowers and sandhill cranes to see the remarkable similarity.

A plant that thrives in wetland habitats in cold climates is unlikely to be grown effectively in hot, arid regions.

But in checking scientific journals to determine what had been discovered about cranberries within the past year, I was surprised to find many of the recent studies were conducted by scientists in the Middle East.

These included ones from Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia in publications such as the International Food Research Journal and Annals of Applied Biology.

One examined the beneficial health properties of fresh cranberry juice due to its antioxidant effects. Another was determining meteorological effects on flowering, and a third concluded that cranberry fruit extract improved the quality of white soft cheese.

Arab News, a widely distributed newspaper published in Saudi Arabia, recently had an article extolling the "proven health benefits" of American cranberries. The popularity of cranberries has extended to the Middle East, despite the lack of suitable natural habitat.

Although the introduction of American cranberries to the Old World is gaining appreciation, not all is perceived as positive.

One journal article was titled "A New Alien Plant Species in Lithuania," with cautionary comments about guarding against "probable invasions in natural bog habitats." Apparently, eastern Europe's peat bogs and cold climate are comparable to that of the cranberry's native habitat.

Intentionally or accidentally introduced cranberries can propagate and be dispersed by birds. Ironically, America's most popular native berry is considered a nuisance in some parts of the world.

Our only truly American fruits consumed throughout the country in large quantity during the holiday season are cranberries. The expression "as American as cranberry pie" is unlikely to replace the one referencing apples, but it would be more accurate.

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