Cranberry Facts and History

The Cranberry (genus Vaccinium) is native to the swamps and bogs of northeastern North America. It belongs to the Heath, or Heather family (Ericaceae), which is a very widespread family of about 125 genera and about 3500 species!  Members of the family occur from polar regions to the tropics in both hemispheres. The cranberry plant is described as a low-growing, woody perennial with small, oval leaves borne on fine, vine-like shoots. Horizontal stems, or runners, grow along the soil surface, rooting at intervals to form a dense mat.  Its flower buds, formed on short, upright shoots, open from May or June, with the berries ripening by late September or early October.  In Maine, the cranberry flowers are in bloom from late June to mid-July.  It is important to have warm, sunny weather during the bloom period, as that is the best formula for maximizing pollination by the cranberry’s two biggest pollinators: bumble bees and honeybees (cranberries rely on insect pollination because the pollen grains are too heavy to be carried around much at all by the wind).

[The following is taken partially from the “Cranberry Agriculture In Maine: Grower’s Guide – 1996 version”]:

The American cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) grows wild from the mountains of Georgia to the Canadian Maritimes, and as far west as Minnesota. It has been cultivated in the Cape Cod area since the early 1800s and was an active industry in Maine during much of the last century. The cultivated cranberry industry then spread to New Jersey by the 1830s, Wisconsin by the 1850s, and the Pacific Northwest by the 1880s. Many Maine farms with suitable land produced small plots of cranberries, mostly for home use and a small marketable surplus. The Maine commercial cranberry industry was virtually eliminated in the early 1900s by a combination of factors, including lack of adequate technology for frost protection, the spread of disease and pests, depressed demand during World War I, the increasing trend toward specialized farming, the replacement of fresh cranberries in the market with the new canned cranberry sauce, and its relative distance to markets. Cranberry production is a vital new industry in the State of Maine. It is a ‘new’ industry in the sense that it represents the rebirth of an industry that left the State in the first half of this century and until 1988 there were no commercial producers in the state. 1991 saw Maine’s first modern commercial harvest and by 1992 there were at least five growers with planted vines and several new plantations under development. As of 2010, there were thirty commercial cranberry farms in the state, with roughly 200 acres (mostly in Washington County). A national surplus of cranberries, however, has been the norm in recent years, driving down prices for water-harvested berries, and resulting in half of the Maine acreage being taken out of production.

Some Cranberry History:

  • Early (and additional) history:
  • 1989: Maine Cranberry Growers Association formed.
  • 1995: Crop of 4,200 barrels harvested in Maine.
  • 1996: Per barrel return as much as $90.
  • 1998: UMaine Cooperative Extension adds a cranberry position to run an IPM program for Maine’s cranberry industry.
  • 2002: Two independent studies find that antioxidants—which cranberries are high in—appear to provide some significant protection against Alzheimer’s disease
  • 2009: Record yield of roughly 26,000 barrels harvested in Maine.
  • 2012 and 2013: New back-to-back record Maine cranberry yields (35,729 barrels in 2012 and 35,870 barrels in 2013 (highest in the state’s modern history) (1 barrel = 100 lbs).

For information about the many health benefits of cranberries, visit the Cranberry Institute’s Health Research page.