Laura Dean Bennett
It was late in the year, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when my house guests set out for a snowy hike on some remote trails in Pocahontas County.
They not only had a wonderful adventure but were thrilled to discover a delicious treasure trove – a patch of wild cranberries.
Well, actually, I should say they had stumbled onto a cranberry fen, as that’s the correct term.
When they came home and reported the find, I, being a demanding host, insisted that they go back out in the cold and collect as many cranberries as they could.
It was late in the season for cranberries – there weren’t many still clinging to their little green stems. Most had probably already been eaten by animals and birds, but there was enough for a handful and that’s what the intrepid explorers got.
Now, almost everyone knows that cranberries grow wild here. After all, one of our most popular spots for visitors is Cranberry Glades.
While they’re prevalent in Canada, Maine, Michigan and a few other places up north, having them growing this far south is a geographical aberration.
For hundreds of thousands of years, cranberries were part of the boreal forest, which circled the globe just below the Arctic Circle and included evergreens like spruce and pine.
During the ice age, the Pleistocene glaciers pushed parts of this ecosystem south.
It took about 10,000 years (there’s a reason for the old expression: “moving at a glacial pace”) but the glaciers moved the soil and seeds of the boreal forest ahead of them, depositing them here.
That is how part of what should have been a sub-Arctic ecosystem came to grow here in the mid-Atlantic region and a bit farther south.
Because of the high elevation and climate of the Appalachian and Great Smoky Mountains, a few of the boreal plants, including cranberries and our balsam fir trees, thrived.
The North American cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon, Aiton, is a member of the Ericaceae family.
This is a huge family of flora, containing about 1,350 species. It includes rhododendrons, blueberries and scotch heather.
Cranberries aren’t really berries, they are fruit. Along with concord grapes and blueberries, they are one of the only major fruits native to North America.
Three species of them can be found in West Virginia and all three species grow here in Pocahontas County.
We have the red-fruited cranberry, V. Erythrocarpum Michx or Southern Mountain Cranberry.
It grows in moist or dry woods, or on heath barrens and can also be found in Randolph, Pendleton, Grant, Summers and Tucker counties and is considered to have little value for human consumption. The fruit ripens from July to September.
We also have V. Oxycoccos L – called small berry. It’s found in sphagnum bogs at high elevations here and in Grant, Mineral, Pendleton, Preston, Randolph and Tucker counties. The limit of its range is in Cranberry Glades. Those berries ripen in August and September.
Then there’s the king of cranberries, the largest variety – V. Macrocarpon Ait. or large-fruited.
This cranberry is found in open bogs and swamps, usually at high elevations in the Allegheny Mountains. In addition to Pocahontas County, it grows in Barbour, Grant, Hardy, Mineral, Monongalia, Preston, Randolph, Summers, Tucker and Webster counties.
This is the same variety which is cultivated and grown commercially, although not in West Virginia. Considerable quantities of these cranberries can be gathered in moist, glady woods when they ripen in September and October.
I don’t know which variety my house guests gathered, whether they were oxycoccos or macrocarpon, but they were quickly added to the cook pot and became part of our Christmas cranberry sauce.
The little berries are loaded with Vitamin C.
Native Americans and Early American colonists used cranberries for food and medicine, poultices and dyes.
Pemmican, which the Native Americans used as “to go” trail food was made with tallow and dried meat and also contained cranberries.
The little sour berries were given the name Craneberry by the Pilgrims, who named them that because their small, pink blossoms resembled the head and bill of sandhill cranes.
Cranberries were first commercially grown by Revolutionary War veteran Henry Hall, who planted them in Dennis, Massachusetts in 1816.
Today cranberries are big business. They are grown commercially across the northern United States and Canada.
Some people may be getting tired of cranberries by now, but not me. I love them in cranberry sauce, and I like to add them to apple pies and berry pies. They also make bright accompaniment on a meat platter and look great as a garnish in a beverage.
Snatch them up when they’re on sale and freeze them to use all year long.
Better yet, if you’re hiking a wilderness trail next fall, and if you remember to watch the ground closely, you may be rewarded with a few handfuls of these magical little red berries.