Historical Notes about Cranberries

I think that this information is probably going to surprise some people, but the way we use cranberries for sauces and fermented beverages is a very old practice from Northern Europe.

Vaccinium oxycoccus and Vaccinium microcarpus  are both native species in the British Isles and were used quite widely as food and medicine. The English called them fen berry or moor-berries. The Welsh called them llygaeron and Ceiros-y-waun. Clan Grant in Scotland wore Mùileag as their heraldic emblem into the 19th century.[1] In Ireland you also saw it referred to as monog (peat berry).[2]

These berries certainly weren’t unique to the UK. V. oxycoccus grew all over the Northern hemisphere, including Sweden  (not to be confused with lingonberry which is Vaccinium vitis-idaea) and Russia. The name cranberry seems to have gotten its start in Sweden where it was called tran-bœr (crane-berry) which the Germans translated as krahn-beere, and the English pronounced cranberry. In Germany they were also called moos-beere because they grow best in sphagnum peat moss. Cranberry was called alirs in parts of northern Asia.

Whatever people chose to call the berries, they have been used in Europe for millennia. V. oxycoccus was one of the ingredients of a Nordic grog (fermented mead, beer, and fruit) buried with a young woman who died sometime between 1500 and 1300 BCE in Egtved, Denmark.[3] This use seemed to persist because in 1902 botanist Frederick Hulme wrote that “on the continent they are by Fermentation made into a kind of a wine” meant to be “an acidulous cooling beverage for the hot weather.”[4] 

I have made cranberry wine and I concur that this is an excellent beverage for hot weather and for when you are feeling feverish.

I was always particularly confused about the narrative that cranberries are unique to this continent, because I know the cranberry sauce recipe in my family was brought over by my Scottish ancestors. Cranberry particularly thrived in the lowland raised bogs of the Scotland. The fruits have been harvested for centuries from bogs near Carsegowan Moss, Loch Ardinning and Largiebaan at the southern end of the Kintyre peninsula. In 1777, Lightfoot wrote:

“On the borders of Cumberland, they made so considerable an article of commerce that at the season when they are ripe, not less than 20 or 30 pounds worth are sold by the poor people each market day for five or six weeks.”[5]

Lightfoot  also wrote that then the berries were mostly being sold for making cranberry tarts. They were quite fond of their cranberry tarts in the UK. Sir William Hooker whose botanical books rarely mentioned foodstuffs or medicinals mentioned that this species makes “the best of tarts.”[6]

While V. oxycoccus grew prolifically in Canada, there is a species Vaccinium macrocarpon native to this continent which has a very limited growing range. It goes without saying that indigenous people undoubtedly had their own ways of knowing that plant, but that is not my story to tell. If someone finds a great article about that send me an e-mail so I can link it here.

For a people so conditioned by English physicians like Timothie Bright and Nicolas Culpeper, to believe that English herbs were best for English bodies, there’s no doubt they were quite glad to see the familiar looking cranberries. In 1672, John Josselyn reported “The English ufe them much, boyling them with Sugar for Sauce to eat with their Meat”[7]   I will write more about that in a moment.

In 1771, Peter Kalm a Swedish visitor to the Philadelphia markets spoke of them saying “the American ones are bigger, but in most things so like the Swedish ones, that many people would take them to be mere varieties.”

What’s actually kind of ironic given all the fuss about cranberry being native to this continent is that in England they didn’t even really like the new species. When demand for the berries became too great for local gatherers to fulfill, the English began importing cranberries from Russian and Sweden. English botanists indicated that this was still the case in 1844 because they believed the Russian cranberries to be of superior quality to the American species.[8] Hulme who refused to call the American species a “true” cranberry, agreed. An American publication written a decade later confirms this saying:

“On many of the vast steppes of Russia wild cranberries abound, and even amid the wastes of Siberia it is occasionally to be met with. Indeed, the Russian cranberries proved for a long time to be no inconsiderable exports of that country, and even until the breaking out of the Eastern War, there were to be seen…quaint looking earthen jars which contained cranberries for the use of the lords and ladies of London.”[9]

Cranberries as Medicine

I am going to switch gears here to talk about medicinal uses.  The Latin word oxycoccus literally translates to “acid berry” and the physicians who did mention them used them the way they did many sour, acidic  flowers and berries.

In 1554, The Dutch physician Dodoens wrote that the bushes grew in “low, moyste places” of Holland and that like other tart berries “marrish whortle quenche thirste, and are good against hoate feuers or agues, and against all euil inflammation or heate of blood, and the inwarde partes.”[10]

Following Dodoens’ lead as always, in 1597  Gerard spoke of gathering the wild berries he called marrish whortes or fenne-berries near Cheshire and Staffordshire. He wrote of their properties:

 “They take away the heate of the burning agues, and also the drought, they quench the furious heate of choler, they stay vomiting, restore an appetite to meat which was lost by reason of cholerick and corrupt humors, and are good against the pestilent diseases. The juice of these also is boyled till it be thicke, with sugar added that it may be kept, which is good for all things that the berries, yea a nd far better.” [11]

Here in Gerard’s entry written before the “first Thanksgiving” we see the therapeutic goal behind the practice of  serving cranberry sauces with turkey and making cranberry cordials. People in the UK continued to call the berries marsh whortles or fen berries, and they figured prominently in folk medicine in the UK and Ireland probably due to how widely Gerard’s herbal was published.[12]

When the Mayflower first landed, one the books on board was a copy of the aforementioned Doedens’ herbal belonging to Elder Brewster. We also know that a letter was sent by Dr. Edward Stafford of London to Governor John Winthrop in Boston, 6 May 1643 containing receipts from Gerard’s herbal that he might find useful, so it’s possible that they had two different sources suggesting that there was a medicinal benefit to making the cordials and serving the sauce with meat.[13]

Mongolian traditional folk medicine included using the berries and leaves for longevity and coughs[14],   I haven’t seen that written about anywhere else but I’ve been experimenting with them in my winter elixirs for awhile now and I find them to be quite useful.  I just hosted a kitchen workshop the other night and taught them to make an elixir with cranberries.

In 1863, botanist John Balfour wrote that the leaves of the plant were sometimes used in place of uva ursi.[15] Scientific analysis of the leaves has revealed that they contain the same chemical (arbutin) as uva ursi and pear skins. Arbutin, which is not found in the berries, is hydrolyzed by various bacteria to hydroquinone in the urinary tract.

Many modern herbalists seemed to have forgotten the use of the leaves and talk about using the berries.  Any benefit that cranberries  have in that department is likely due to the pectin in the berries and pectin’s immunomodulating effect on gut bacteria.  If you can get at the whole plant try making a preparation with the leaves and berries.  It will be a game changer for you.

[1] Phillips, Henry. Floral Emblems. London, England: Saunders and Otley, 1825. pp 14.

[2] Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire for the Year ... Society, 1876.

[3] McGovern, Patrick E., Gretchen R. Hall, and Armen Mirzoian. “A Biomolecular Archaeological Approach to ‘Nordic Grog.’” Danish Journal of Archaeology 2, no. 2 (November 1, 2013): 112–31.

[4] Hulme, Frederick Edward. Wild Fruits of the Country-Side. Hutchinson, 1902. pp 232.

[5] Lightfoot, John. Flora Scotica: Or a Systematic Arrangement in the Linnaean Method of the Native Plants of Scotland and the Hebrides. Vol. 1. London, England: Printed for B. White, At Horace’s Head, 1777. pp. 203.

[6] Hooker, William Jackson, and George Arnott Walker Arnott. The British Flora : Comprising the Phaenogamous or Flowering Plants, and the Ferns /. Vol.1. London, 1855. pp. 262.

[7] Josselyn, John. New-England’s Rarities Discovered in Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents, and Plants of That Country. Edited by Edward Tuckerman. Boston : William Veazie, 1865.

[8] Loudon, J.C. Arboretum Et Fruticetum Britannicum. Vol. II. London, England: Longman, Orme, Green and Longmans, 1844.

[9] Eastwood, B. A Complete Manual for the Cultivation of the Cranberry: With a Description of the Best Varieties. New York, NY: C. M. Saxton, 1856. pp 14.

[10] Dodoens, Rembert. A Nievve Herball, or Historie of Plantes. Translated by Henry Lyte. 1578 Translation.. London, England: AT LONDON by my Gerard Dewes, dwelling in Pawles Churchyarde at the signe of the Swanne, 1554.

[11] Gerard, John. The Herball Or Generall Historie of Plantes. London, England: Norton, John, 1597. pp. 1367.

[12] Newman, L. F. “Some Notes on Folk Medicine in the Eastern Counties.” Folklore 56, no. 4 (1945): 349–60.

[13] Gifford, George. “Botanic Remedies in Colonial Massachusetts, 1620–1820.” In Medicine in Colonial Massachusetts. Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1978. https://www.colonialsociety.org/node/1215.

[14] WHO. Medicinal Plants in Mongolia. World Health Organization, Regional Office for the Western Pacific., 2013.

[15] Balfour, John Hutton. A Manual of Botany. A. and C. Black, 1863.