Have yourself a berry little holiday

COLUMBIA, Mo. – The cranberry keeps a low profile most of the time, but this time of year it shines as the crown jewel of holiday dinners.

Americans gobble up about 400 million pounds of the bitter berry annually, said University of Missouri Extension horticulturist David Trinklein. About 20 percent of that consumption comes during the Thanksgiving season.

The Pilgrims found thornless evergreen vines covered with the small fruit growing in boggy regions near Plymouth Colony. Native Americans of that era used cranberries in a number of ways. They pounded it into meat to form a paste called pemmican, which preserved the meat. They also used it to dye fabric and as medicine.

The plants are evergreen and trail along the ground. They produce short, vertical shoots as they spread. The shoots later flower and produce fruit for many years. The fruit turns from white to red as it ripens and matures.

Revolutionary War veteran Henry Hall is credited with starting commercial production of the cranberry in 1816. Cranberry is one of only three native North American fruits grown commercially.

Cranberries are persnickety about their growing conditions. They do not like heat. They must grow either in acid bogs, natural or man-made, with pH levels between 4.5 and 5, or in beds constructed of sandy soil with artificially maintained pH levels between 4.5 and 5.

Most harvesting takes place from mid-September through early November. At harvest, growers flood beds with water to cover the vines. A mechanical harvester then moves through the bed and severs the fruit from the vine by churning the water. The fruits float to the surface and gather in the corner of the bed. A conveyor belt picks them up and takes them to the processing plant. Cranberries also may be dry-harvested. A machine with teeth combs the berries from the vine and deposits them in a corner.

A cranberry is only as good as its bounce, said Trinklein. In earlier years, farmers tested berries by rolling them down a flight of steps. Top-grade, firm berries bounced to the bottom. Damaged or second-rate berries remained on the steps. Today, machines separate top-quality berries for sale from lesser-grade berries destined for juice or sauce processing.

Cranberry isn’t just another pretty face at the holiday dinner. The pigment that gives berries their red color contains an antioxidant linked to combating some kinds of cancer. Medical professionals promote it for heart health and all-around wellness. Cranberry juice also gets the nod from doctors treating urinary tract infections because it contains a compound that prevents bacteria from attaching to the bladder wall. New England sailors ate cranberries to prevent scurvy.