Cranberries are a group of low, creeping evergreen dwarf shrubs or trailing vines, that grow in acidic bogs in the cooler regions of the U.S. and Canada.
The plants belong to the heather family, Ericaceae, along with the bilberry, blueberry, huckleberry, azalea and other rhododendrons.
NAMING THE BERRY
Native American tribes from New England Pequod and Wampanoag to the Leni-Lenape of New Jersey to the Algonquins of Wisconsin variously called them sassamanesh (very sour berry), ibimi (bitter berry) and atoqua in their local tongues.
The English name derives from kranebere, German for crane berry, so called by early Dutch and German settlers in New England who saw the flower, stem, calyx and petals as resembling the neck, head and bill of a crane.
Some New Englanders called them bearberries, as bears were fond of feeding on them.
Northeastern Canadians called them mossberries.
In the U.K., it’s the fenberry, since the plants grow in a fen (a marsh).
The Wampanoag People of southeastern Massachusetts had been harvesting wild cranberries for 12,000 years by the time the Pilgrims arrived. The Leni-Lenape of New Jersey and other tribes in the East also were blessed with cranberry bogs.
Native Americans used cranberries for grits and pemmican—deer meat, mashed cranberries and fat, pressed and dried as a convenience food for travel. Cranberries mashed with cornmeal were baked it into bread.
While maple sugar and honey were used to sweeten the sour berry, some souls with a palate for the super-tart even ate them fresh.
Non-food uses included dye, fever-reducers, wound poultices and seasickness remedy.
Cultivating The Cranberry
The first cultivation of cranberries took place in Dennis, on Cape Cod, around 1816. After that, landowners eagerly converted their peat bogs, swamps and wetlands into cranberry bogs.
Farmers developed a process called wet harvesting: flooding the bog with water so the cranberries floated to the surface, where they are collected.
Cranberries found their way across the northern states to the Pacific Northwest, and were first shipped to Europe in the 1820s. From England, they were brought to the cold-appropriate countries of Scotland, Russia and Scandinavia. They’re now grown commercially in Chile as well.
Today, U.S. Farmers harvest approximately 40,000 acres of cranberries each year (source).
The fruit is turned into jam, juice, sauce and sweetened dried cranberries, with the remainder sold fresh to consumers for cooking and baking.
A fresh cranberry will bounce, due to the pocket of air inside (photo #3). That’s also why they float.
The cranberry is one of only three fruits native to North America that were not known in Europe*. The others: the blueberry and the grape.
 The cranberry flower (photo courtesy University of Wisconsin.  Cranberries on the branch (photo courtesy University of Minnesota).  The air pockets in cranberries enable them to bounce and float (photo courtesy Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association).  Fresh cranberries (photo courtesy Ocean Spray).