One year while working as volunteer staff for the Viable Paradise writer’s workshop on Martha’s Vineyard we discovered a local farm, Morning Glory farm, with locally grown produce, including fresh cranberries from nearby Cape Cod Massachusetts, and Carver (in Eastern Massachusetts), both places where commercial cranberry bogs are carefully cultivated, and the wild native cranberry still flourishes in marshes and bogs. Cranberries are so much a part of Eastern Massachusetts today, that there’s even a cranberry trail to follow, including currently cultivated cranberry bogs on a number of farms. There are currently about 14,000 acres devoted to cranberry cultivation in Massachusetts, but the cranberry is also commercially grown (and still thriving as a native species) in other places as well, most notably Washington state.

picture of a cranberry bush in a cranberry bog in Washington
Coastal Washington cranberry bog
Image: Keith Weller, USDA

Humans have been eating cranberries for hundreds of years, in Europe from at least the bronze age, and they’re an important part of a number of native American groups’ diet even now, as they were when Europeans first arrived in North America. The name cranberry or “crane berry” is a translation of Low German Kraanbere: Kraan, “crane” (from Middle Low German kran; see ger-2 in Appendix I) + bere, berry (AHD). Until c. 1686, according to the OED, cranberries were known as “marsh-whorts, fen-whorts, fen-berries, marsh-berries, and moss-berries,” in English. The name “cranberry,” or more specifically crane berry is inspired by the perceived resemblance of the blossoms (including the stem and calyx) to the neck and head of a crane. In addition, in Europe at least, cranes are known to eat ripe cranberries. The anecdote about the Pilgrims naming the berry because of its resemblance is inventive, but inaccurate; the word cranberry was borrowed, ultimately probably from Dutch, by way of German, well before Europeans arrived in North America.

In both the New World, where cranberries were an important element in native diets, and in Europe, cranberries were used for medicinal purposes almost as often as they were used as a food source. The leaves and berries were dried and used in the form of teas and poultices to prevent infection and treat urinary infections. Modern medicine has continued this practice; cranberry juice in its purest drinkable form is still often recommended to prevent and ameliorate UTIs, (though it is not regarded as a treatment) and there’s been research into using cranberries and cranberry extracts to treat Helicobacter pylori (H. Pylori) infections that are often responsible for stomach ulcers.

An earlier version of this post was published on Morpheme Addict.