As holiday meals are upon us, native traditional foods become central to our menus. One of the plants which take center stage is our is our native cranberry Vaccinium oxycoccus, which once grew abundantly throughout our region. The Pacific Northwest was formerly dotted with hundreds of known and named bogs, home to very important native plants including our bog cranberry, named ƛ̓x̌ulčac in the Lushootseed language.
In the Blueberry Family, it is closely related to blueberry and huckleberry but in miniature form, though ki’s berries grow just as large. These bogs were filled with cranberries which could be harvested in large quantities. One well-known bog was located just south of Duvall in the Snoqualmie Valley. It was so large that it is said that people travelled there and camped for weeks harvesting these berries to store for winter and as a trade item. They were harvested while green before the fall rains, and packed in moss where they slowly ripened to be eaten fresh, or mashed and mixed with other berries used in sauces, puddings or soups.
The first European settlers who encountered this plant named it crane-berry for shape of its dainty drooping pink flower, which is a delight to discover in early summer. This name might also be linked to the sandhill cranes who favor these berries and the bogs they grow in. I find it remarkable to compare the size of the plant itself to the enormous berry these tiny plants produce- to compare with an apple tree the fruit would be the size of a basketball!
Sadly most of our bogs/fens have disappeared- filled or drained for agriculture and development and those few remaining altered by changing hydrology which shifts the plant community from bog to emergent wetland. But I do know of many little tucked away places, now protected and cared for as rare habitat, often for the threatened animal and plant species associated with these complex ecosystems. Interesting associated plants include our insect-eating Greater Sundew and Butterwort and other important plants such Gentian and Labrador tea. Commercial bogs in Grays Harbor area are successfully growing another species of native cranberry from the Northeast (V. macrocarpon) and these can be seasonally ‘foraged’ at our local farmers markets and local foods stores.
Cranberries were a valued food for the Salish people, being very high in Vitamin C and anti-oxidant, and though very tart were eaten fresh, or mixed with other sweeter berries. The berries were also medicinal, used to treat wounds and internal infections. Early European explorers quickly realized their value in protecting against scurvy packing them in barrels of water during their voyages. We can add them to our traditional foods meals by making traditional sauces for meat and fish, using them in desserts such as one of my seasonal favorites ‘Walnut and Cranberry Tart, and as beverages. We have been experimenting with them in our Foraged Cocktails programs, such as this sparkling holiday drink.
As yet, I’ve never found a patch of wild cranberry that I’d feel ethical harvesting from. Cranberries are sometimes available for purchase as plants, and not to be mistaken for ‘highbush cranberry’ an entirely different plant. I see that Raintree Nursery carries a variety that might be interesting to grow, but I think instead I will support the organic cranberry farmers in our state as they learn how to successfully farm this amazing plant.
I hope you enjoy this holiday season and all the beautiful bounty of our lands.