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American Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) : FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Which state produces the most cranberries?

Since 1995, Wisconsin has produced the largest crop of cranberries -- currently, about 57% of the United States' total production.  Massachusetts fell from first to second largest producer in 1995, and currently produces another 23-30%.  The remaining U.S. cranberry crop comes mainly from New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington. 

The USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service releases cranberry production forecasts and statistics in mid-August of each year, and maintains archived statistics online back to 1962 (contained in the 1964 report).

2. Are cranberries actually grown in water, like in the commercials?

No.  Cranberry fields (called "bogs" or "marshes") are flooded to make them easier to harvest mechanically, since the berries float.  

3. Is it true that cranberries are one of only three fruits native to North America?

Not quite.  We have not been able to track down the origin of this statement, but it seems to be a misinterpretation of the more-defensible claim that of commercially-important fruits, only three originated in North America, in the sense that they were not known in other parts of the world.  These are the cranberry, the blueberry, and the Concord type blue grape (Vitis labrusca.)

Native Americans made use of several kinds of berries, including strawberries and raspberries, but these were also known to Europeans.  There are many other fruits, such as the pawpaw and the saskatoon, that are native to North America, but are not commercially important. 

4. Were cranberries served at the first Thanksgiving?

There is no complete record of the food at the feast shared by the Pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621.  Two letters written near that time indicate that the feast included wheat, corn, barley, waterfowl, deer, fish, and wild turkey.  Native Americans used cranberries (and other berries) for food, and they may have brought some, but there is no direct evidence that they did so.

5. Where did the name cranberry come from?

The first known use of the word "cranberries" in English occurred in a letter written by the missionary John Eliot in 1647.  (Source: Cranberry Harvest: A History of Cranberry Growing in Massachusetts. Joseph D. Thomas, ed. New Bedford, Mass.: Spinner Publications, 1990.)

The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that the early New England colonists may have coined the word from the German "kranebere" - literally, "crane berry."  Some say this is because the flower was considered to like a crane, while others think it's because cranes were seen to feed on the plant.

6. How do you make dried cranberries?

Commercial dried sweetened cranberries ("craisins") are made using food processing methods and equipment not available for home use. 

If you want to experiment with home drying of cranberries, you can find advice in two books: Mary Bell,  Mary Bell's Complete Dehydrator Cookbook (New York : William Morrow, 1994) and Deanna DeLong, How to Dry Foods (Los Angeles : HP Books, 1992.)  Both authors recommend using water that has been brought to a boil to pop the skins of the cranberries.  Mary Bell recommends then freezing the berries to further break down cell walls before dehydrating the cranberries.  A sweetener such as sugar or corn syrup can be used at some stage of the process.  However, the product may not be the same as commercial dried cranberries. Let us know if you find a technique that produces dried cranberries that are comparable to the commercial product.

7.  What is the best way to freeze cranberries?

If you buy cranberries in a plastic bag, the bag can go directly into the freezer. Bulk cranberries can be frozen in a freezer bag or freezer container.  Cranberries will last up to nine months in the freezer. Frozen cranberries can be used in recipes without thawing; since frozen berries will be soft when thawed, it is easier to chop or grind them while frozen.

8.  How were cranberry scoops used?

Cranberry scoops were introduced in the 1850's as an aid in the manual picking of cranberries.  The first cranberry scoops were wooden baskets with comb-like wooden teeth that would pull the berries off the vines into the basket. 

Antique cranberry scoops are often sold online, and there are companies that sell reproductions to use as decorative magazine racks.  If you enter the phrase "cranberry scoop" into a search engine, you should be able to find an image fairly quickly.

9. Does cranberry juice really help prevent urinary tract infections?

Cranberry juice has been traditionally used to prevent and treat urinary tract infections.  It is thought to help prevent bacteria from adhering to the walls of the urinary tract.  One recent study indicates that cranberry juice is good for preventing urinary tract infections, but may not be effective for treating existing infections. Cranberry juice may also have antioxidant and anticancer properties.  Research is ongoing.

To track current medical research, you can search PubMed, which is provided by the U.S. National Library of Medicine to index the medical journal literature. Use cranberr* as the search term to retrieve citations of articles dealing with either cranberries or cranberry juice.  The same agency also provides access to MedlinePlus, for health information in layperson's language.

10. Where does white cranberry juice come from?

White cranberry juice was introduced into the market in 2001, and is made from regular cranberries which are harvested about three weeks early, after they are mature, but before they turn red.

11. What was the cranberry scare of 1959?

On November 9, 1959, Arthur S. Flemming, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare announced that some cranberries grown in Oregon and Washington State had been found to have been contaminated with aminotriazole, a weed killer that had been found to cause cancer in rats.  When questioned, he said that if a housewife is unable to determine the origin of fresh or canned cranberries, "to be on the safe side, she doesn't buy." Cranberries were pulled from grocery shelves and sales dropped precipitously.  Coming shortly before Thanksgiving, this caused a crisis in the industry.  After testing it was found that very few shipments of cranberries were contaminated.  It was also doubtful that aminotriazole, in the amounts likely to be ingested by a human being eating cranberries, presented a real health risk.  Both Flemming and Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson made a point of announcing that they would have cranberries with their Thanksgiving dinners.  By Christmas, large quantities of cranberries were available bearing labels saying that they had either been tested by the Food and Drug Administration or otherwise certified safe.  However, the "cranberry scare of  1959" caused damage that it took the cranberry industry many years to recover from. (Source: Contemporary articles in the New York Times.)

12. What happened to Boggs, a cranberry-flavored liqueur?

Heublein, Inc., once produced Boggs Cranberry Liqueur, but it has been discontinued.  There are recipes for homemade liqueurs that may or may not resemble Boggs available on the Internet.

13. Is the "highbush cranberry" the same plant?

No.  There are several plants with similar common names, but these should not be mistaken for Vaccinium macrocarpon, commonly known as "American cranberry."  For example, "Highbush cranberry" or "cranberrybush" are common names for Viburnum opulus.  "Cranberry cotoneaster" is the common name for Cotoneaster apiculatus.  And while the "Southern mountain cranberry," the "Northern mountain cranberry," and the "small cranberry" are all in the same genus, they are all different species from the commercially-grown Vaccinium macrocarpon.