Cranberry (vaccinium macrocarpon)

The cranberry is a low evergreen shrub native to the coastal areas, bogs, and swamps of northeastern and western North America. The creeping plant bears dark pink flowers with curved petals, followed by white berries that turn deep red when ripe.

European settlers in eastern North America called the plant craneberry because they thought its curved flower petals and anthers resembled the head of a crane. Native Americans used the fruit as food, often making it into cakes or mixing it with meat to make pemmican, which they used throughout the winter.


Plant profile

Common Name: Cranberry

Description: Creeping evergreen shrub, 1 to 3 feet tall; leathery, green leaves; nodding pink or white flowers followed by white fruit, turning deep red when ripe

Hardiness: To Zone 2

Family: Ericaceae

Flowering: Midsummer

Parts Used: Fruit

Range/Habitat: Native to northeastern North America and the West Coast; bogs, swamps, coastal areas

Culinary use

Because of their tartness, cranberries are generally cooked with sugar when they’re made into sauces, jellies, jams, and baked goods. The fruits can also be dried and eaten like raisins or added to salads and desserts.

Medicinal use

Cranberry fruits, which are high in vitamin C, were at one time eaten to prevent scurvy, a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency. The berries contain anthocyanins and flavonol glycosides, which have antibacterial properties. Studies have shown that drinking cranberry juice or taking cranberry extract tablets reduces your risk of a bladder infection — although there is little evidence that cranberry can cure an infection once it’s begun.

Active compounds in the fruit inhibit microorganisms from adhering to the cells lining your urinary tract, making a less hospitable environment for infection-causing bacteria such as E. coli. The same compounds are said to help prevent various types of bacteria from forming dental plaque, and some preliminary research suggests cranberry could inhibit the growth of Helicobacter pylori, a bacteria that can cause stomach ulcers. Cranberry also might benefit men with chronic prostatitis.

How to grow it

Cranberry requires a unique combination of growing conditions to thrive: moist to wet acidic soil, cool temperatures, and a long growing season (April to November). The plant’s creeping roots must remain cool and wet; commercial growers cultivate cranberries in bog soil composed of alternate layers of sand, gravel, and organic matter, adding new layers of sand every 2 to 5 years.

If you do not have a natural wetland area, try growing cranberries in a sunken bed and flood it periodically, or use drip irrigation to keep the soil constantly moist. Cranberry fruit matures about 80 days after bloom, usually by late October; the ripe fruit is bright red and firm. The plants can be propagated by softwood cuttings taken in spring.