Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/The cranberry and its allies


Dwellers in our great cities, the first stage of whose acquaintance with cranberries is mostly the discovery of them as inmates of a barrel, the label of which announces that it is freshly arrived from Norway, Russia, or America, might be expected to feel some surprise on learning, for the first time, that the fruit thus constantly identified with foreign associations is not only indigenous to our own country, but very abundant in many parts of it. The surprise would, however, be mingled perhaps with another feeling, not very complimentary to their rural compatriots, on finding further that our immense imports, amounting, some years ago, to as much as 30,000 gallons per annum, paying a duty of sixpence per gallon, are not so much a supplement to native supplies as a substitute for them, and that while Russian boors and American settlers find a profitable employment in collecting cranberries for the English markets, our own poor villagers suffer vast quantities of these berries year by year to rot ungathered on British bushes. In Scotland especially is this the case, and their countryman, McIntosh, justly deplores that some among the more enlightened class do not direct the attention of the Scotch peasantry to the wastefully neglected advantages nature has afforded them with regard to this fruit, and incite their industry by pointing out the best markets and easiest mode of transport. How much might be gained in this way may be judged from an old account of Longton in Cumberland, where cranberry-gathering, being undertaken in earnest, the sale of them amounted ordinarily to 20l. or 30l. on each market-day throughout the season, which extended over five or six weeks, many people there even making wine from them. It is true that cranberries, which, therefore in Gerard’s time bore the name of “fen-berries,” and are termed by the Dutch “fen-grapes,” thrive only in damp and swampy ground, and that in a country where population is always increasing, and improvement progressing, bogs and marshes are by no means desirable features, nor yet likely to be permanent ones; but so long as soil of this kind is in existence, there is so much the more reason for turning it to the best account by making use of what it does produce, or if not brought forth spontaneously, of planting it with what it is fitted to produce, for wherever there is water there cranberries will thrive, and many witnesses depose to the fact that, with very little cost or trouble, a cranberry plantation may be established on the margin of any pond even in the most barren waste. All that is necessary is to form round its border a bed of bog-earth, kept in its place by a few boards and stakes, for this kind of soil retains moisture longer than any other, and is so indispensable to the cranberry plant that, though it will sometimes grow in bog-earth away from any pond, not even dwelling beside a pond can induce it to thrive unless rooted in bog-earth. A few bushes planted in such a situation will send out runners, which, in the course of a few years, will spread over the whole bed, and never requiring any culture or attention, they will continue year after year to bring forth an abundant and regular crop of fruit, unaffected by bad weather and unspoiled by insect ravages. Sir Joshua Banks was the first to try this experiment, near a pond in his grounds at Spring Grove; but though the result was eminently successful, it has been very little followed in this country. In New England, however, many low-lying, rank meadows are turned to very profitable account by being thus planted, for twenty feet of land will yield three or four bushels of fruit annually, the average value of the produce being about one dollar per bushel, and at New York they will even sell for three or four dollars a bushel; while the only attention they require is simply to be gathered when ripe, and a labourer can gather, with the aid of a “rake,” as much as thirty bushels in a day. They grow wild in greatest abundance in the neighbourhood of Barnstaple, United States; and here the gathering is made an annual festival, a day for it being appointed by the authorities, when the greater part of the population go forth, armed with implements called “cranberry rakes,” to collect the crop, a fixed proportion of which is always made over to the town as a municipal right.

The generic name of the cranberry, Oxycoccus, is derived from the Greek oxys, sharp, and kokkos, a berry, alluding to the acidity of the fruit. This genus includes several species, our native English kind being termed palustris, and the common American sort macrocarpus; but they do not differ very strikingly, the chief distinction being that the berries of the latter are larger, while the flavour of ours is mostly preferred. That the American kind are thought inferior may sometimes be due to the damaging influence of the voyage they must undergo before we receive them; but it is not always so, since that species has been introduced into England and grown here, so as to afford an opportunity of fair comparison. Sir J. Banks, who first planted it, found it easier of culture than even the native cranberry, and in one year obtained from eighteen feet of ground a crop sufficient to fill 140 ordinary preserving-bottles. To be put into bottles or close barrels is all that is required in order to preserve cranberries for winter use, and if a small quantity of more highly flavoured preserved fruits, such as raspberries, be used with them, they make an excellent addition to the winter bill of fare. The ordinary kinds abound in Sweden, where, in Linnæus’s time, they were chiefly employed as a detergent to clean plate; another species, called snowberries, on account of the fruit being white, and which has a flavour like that of bitter almonds, was brought from Nova Scotia in 1760, but has not yet become popularised.

The cranberry plant is a low, trailing, evergreen shrub, with very small, smooth, unserrated leaves, and bright rose-coloured flowers, having a four-toothed calyx and a corolla deeply cleft into four segments, which curve backwards like those of the common nightshade, a flower to which, in shape and size they bear much resemblance, though differing in many other respects. They grow in small clusters at the ends of the branches, one blossom on each long curved flower-stalk; and when, in due course, they are succeeded by the crimson berries drooping at the extremity of these slender bending stalks, like the head of an aquatic bird at the end of its arched neck, the reason becomes sufficiently apparent why our forefathers bestowed on them the name of crane-berries. The plant belongs to the natural order Ericaceæ, or heathworts, as does also its very near relation the bilberry or wortleberry (Vaccinium), classed with it by Linnæus, and with which it is still sometimes confused even by writers of some pretensions; but though the fruit of some species of Vaccinium is extremely similar to that of the Oxycoccus, there is a marked distinction in the flower, the latter, instead of having divided and recurved petals, displaying a corolla which looks at least like a quite entire little bell, with a large ovary surrounded by ten stamens in its centre, and it is not until the fruit is formed that it is seen by the circle of five little scars upon its surface, beyond the ten dots which show where the stamens once were, and a central mark denoting the place of the style, that this globular corolla was really composed of five pieces, though adhering so closely as to seem but one. The nearest ally to the cranberry is the Vaccinium Vitis Idæa, a low-growing evergreen, with foliage very like that of the box used for bordering garden-beds, and flowers with a bell-shaped corolla, rather deeply cleft by four notches, growing in racemes at the end of the branches. The berries, too, are crimson, and ripening about August in some parts of England, chiefly in Westmoreland, are often made into tarts under the name of “cow-berries,” but are more astringent and less pleasant than either the cranberry or the common whortle or bil-berry. In Sweden, however, large quantities are yearly made into jelly, which is eaten as a sauce with all kinds of meat, being even preferred by many to currant jelly. Shut into a close vessel, and placed in a cellar, they keep well for a long time, and the wine-makers of Paris preserve them thus from June until vintage time, using them then to give colour to their grape juice—a practice harmless, at least so long as they confine themselves to the use of this species; but it is said they also resort sometimes to the Vaccinium uliginosum, a larger, darker-coloured fruit, with less flavour, but which, taken in any quantity, causes giddiness and headache, and which is therefore employed occasionally in England also to produce an illegitimate “headiness” in beer. A white-fruited species is also sometimes met with, chiefly in Lancashire.

The kind most often seen is the Vaccinium myrtillus, variously named the whortle, hurtle, bil, or blae-berry, a small, round, purple or almost black fruit, covered with a delicate azure bloom. Growing on heaths or waste places, it is not only indigenous in every county of this country, from the warm Land’s End to the bleak highlands of Scotland, but is actually so peculiarly at home in this happy land, as to be reckoned one of the plants which, if allowed, would over-run Britain, and form one of the largest elements in its natural vegetation. Many kinds of game resort to it in the autumn to feed on its berries and find covert among the plants, which, in the pine forests of Scotland attain sometimes a height of three feet, and bear fruit as large as black currants, which the Highlanders make into a jelly, often mixed with whisky, to be presented to strangers as a special mark of hospitality. The berries, being very astringent, are used medicinally in the Western Isles in cases of diarrhœa and dysentery, and in many places are eaten for pleasure, either uncooked, with cream, or made into tarts; and, in Poland, where they abound, they are considered a great delicacy when mingled with wood-strawberries and new milk. According to Gerard, bilberries grew once on Hampstead Heath, and at Finchley and Highgate, but are not to be met with now in the vicinity of London, though very abundant in some parts of Surrey, where they are gathered by the cottagers’ children, and sold at the nearest market, seldom finding their way so far as to the metropolis. Nor has the plant been yet introduced into gardens, though it will grow in sandy peat, kept moist in any shady place; and McIntosh affirms that those who are fond of adding to their dessert will find several species of Vaccinium well worthy of cultivation; while the editors of the “Nouveau Du Hamel” observe, with almost bitter sarcasm, concerning the similar neglected fate of the same plant in France, that had it only had the good fortune to have been brought from China or New Holland, and been only obtainable with great difficulty as a costly exotic, instead of simply growing wild in the forests of Montmorency, it would certainly have been very highly valued, if only for its beautiful little pink blossom. These charming little wax-like flowers, which appear in May in the form of almost globular bells, narrowed at the neck, and slightly toothed at the edge by five small notches, certainly rival in elegance many foreign heaths. They grow singly, upon drooping stalks, among the small serrated and deciduous leaves, and in gathered sprays, the plants interspersed among more showy flowers, would be found to form a very pleasing feature in a bouquet.