My morning run takes me through the dense woods along the Herring River to where the forest opens up on the Salt Pond Wildlife Sanctuary. The early mist floats over the cranberry bog like a translucent gray shroud.  Pale sunlight pierces the wispy vapors like a slashing blade in some places and bounces off bright and sharp as a laser in others.  We visit these bogs throughout the four seasons of the year and watch as the green cranberries bud in the spring, fatten into plump red berries throughout the summer and are harvested in the fall.  In winter we ice skate above them. Here on Cape Cod, cranberries have been an important part of the scene since man first arrived after the last ice age.

Vaccinium macrocarpon, the American Cranberry, one of three fruits native to North America (along with the Concord grape and blueberry) has over one hundred varieties and is the state berry of Massachusetts.  On Cape Cod, two varieties are harvested commercially, the Early Black which is dark purple in color and is harvested in September, and the Later Howes that is larger,  lighter in color and matures in October.  Together, these varieties make Massachusetts the largest producer of the fruit, and account for over two million barrels per year representing over 13,000 acres of production and over $100 million in sales.

There is some uncertainty as to the exact derivation of the  name cranberry.  One likely candidate is the English "Crane berry," resulting from the fact that the stamens of the plant resemble the beak of a crane.  Other theories include the german "Kraanbere," or the Dutch, "Kranebere."  All of these share the association with cranes, a bird that I can testify are attracted to cranberry bogs, even though they don't appear to actually eat the berries.  

The earliest residents of the Cape enjoyed the cranberry as a food and used it to make dyes for their clothes as well as medicines. When the pilgrims arrived from England, the cranberry was one of the local foods available for the taking.   In 1677, Cape Cod cranberries were sent to King Charles II, along with three thousand codfish, and two hogsheads of corn as part of a token apology when the wayward colonists minted their own "Pine Tree" shillings without his permission. Cranberries mixed with venison and suet to make pemmican, was a long lasting high energy food rich in vitamin C. The explorer Robert Peary and his assistant, a young black man named Matthew Henson,  took a supply of pemmican on their historic journey to the North Pole in 1909.

In the early 1800's, Henry Hall of Dennis noticed that the cranberry vines growing in the swampy area of his farm actually produced more fruit than those in the uplands.  He began to experiment to find the optimum conditions, and as his harvest grew, his brother, Isaiah Hall started a cooperage to provide barrels for packaging the harvest.  The barrels produced by Hall became the official measure of the cranberry harvest and are still used today.  The cranberry harvest grew into a major agricultural industry in Massachusetts around 1850 when Cyrus Calhoon planted his first quarter acre bog in Harwich and found a good market for his harvest.  Another cranberry pioneer, Captain Abiathar Doane, also of Harwich, Massachusetts, found that the yield could be further increased by planting the cranberry vines close together.  Abel Makepeace of West Barnstable crossbred different strains of cranberry to further increase the yield and quality of the vines and earned the title, "Cranberry King."  A cranberry bog normally takes about three years to begin producing a commercial harvest.  Once in production, a properly cared for bog can produce fruit almost indefinitely.

The local cranberry bogs are low swampy rectangles about a hundred meters in length and perhaps 30 meters in width.   A trench is cut around the perimeter of the bog and several others typically traverse the rectangle.  The cranberry vines grow in a tight low mass in the sandy soil. The bogs usually have access to a nearby pond for flooding with an inlet at one end and an outlet at the other for draining the bog. The cranberry bog is flooded in late fall for the "wet harvest." During wet harvesting, the bog is flooded to a few inches above the cranberry vines, then a harvesting machine with balloon tires, so as to not harm the vines, is driven above using a giant waterwheel device called an eggbeater to create turbulence and shake the berries loose from the vines.  The buoyant berries float to the surface due to the four buoyant chambers in the fruit.  The floating berries are then skimmed to the side of the bog for harvesting. The wet harvesting technique accounts for about 75% of the modern cranberry harvest of almost five million barrels per year, or about 200 billion berries. 

The quality of the harvested cranberries is measured by their "bounceability."  According to Cape Cod legend John "PegLeg" Webb discovered this characteristic when an accident in his barn caused a large number of cranberries to be dropped on the floor.  He noticed that some of the berries bounced off of the hardwood floors while others didn't. When he realized that the ones that hadn't bounced were inferior or spoiled, the bounce test was born.  Modern cranberry separators test the quality of newly harvested berries using as set of seven four inch hurdles.  The highest quality berries bounce over the first hurdle, and end up as fresh fruit.  Lower quality berries clear the later barriers and are sold for juice or sauces.

In recent years, the local cranberry harvest has become a source of controversy here in Falmouth.  In the early 1990's a chemical plume from the Otis Air Force base contaminated the groundwater beneath several cranberry bogs, rendering them unusable for several years.  More recently, complaints about the fertilizers and pesticides used by the cranberry growers has forced the town of Falmouth to reevaluate whether or not they will continue to lease the town-owned bogs to commercial cranberry growers.  The growers maintain that the chemicals they use are all fully approved by the State EPA, and due to their limited and fast acting nature cause no harm to the environment. 

Jogging through the mist around the edge of the bog brings me to the rusty iron gate at the end of the road.  As I duck under the bar I find myself almost nose to beak with a Snowy Egret perched on the edge of the bog like Gandalf the Grey.  The spindly bird is staring directly into the sun and seems a little stunned at first as I step towards him.  We look each other in the eye, sharing a moment of surprise, then he extends his muscular white wings and begins beating the mist into turbulent swirls as he rises slowly above the cranberry vines and flies towards the sea.


More Cranberry Information

The Cranberry Institute: 
The American Cranberry:


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