Cranberries from the wild

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Bowl of large cranberries, Vaccinium macrocarpon

Large cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon

Wild cranberries begin to ripen in September, but I like to wait until late October, or even November, to harvest them. They sweeten as the season progresses, especially if they are hit with a frost after they have already turned red. Waiting that long is risky, though, if the crop is small, because frost will ruin unripe berries, and because other people and animals might get the good ones before you do.

Last year was perfect, in my area, for gathering these vitamin C and antioxidant rich berries. Several frosts sweetened them before we picked them in late October and early November. And, there had been a bumper crop, so plenty remained for us after wild animals had been feeding on them for over a month. The cranberries were unusually sweet and juicy, remarkably suitable for raw eating, like none I’d ever had. Those that survived the trip home made the best cranberry sauce ever, with little added sugar.

This year hasn’t been quite so wonderful for cranberry foragers around here. Pickin’s were rather slim earlier this week, the nights had not yet dipped below freezing, and the berries were comparable in flavor and texture to their store bought relatives. It was a fun outing with a great group of people, nonetheless, and we were rewarded with plenty of interesting animal sign (which might appear in future posts).

Identifying wild cranberry plants

If you find cranberry plants in July, you’ll be treated to beautiful flowers, each with 4 recurved petals of white with a pinkish cast. But only if you look carefully, for they are tiny and inconspicuous.

Cranberries from the wild

Flowers of wild cranberry

By late July, there will be many green berries, with some beginning to turn pink.

Cranberries from the wild

Unripe cranberries in late July in central Massachusetts

But don’t be tempted to pick them until they are fully ripe.

Wild large cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon, growing near a lake

Wild large cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon, growing near a lake

Closely related to blueberries, wild cranberries grow on small, creeping shrubs with slender, wiry stems, that don’t get more than about a foot tall. Two species are common around here, the large cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon, and the small cranberry Vaccinium oxycoccus. Though the berries obviously differ in size, there is some overlap.

You don’t really need to be able to distinguish between them because both are edible. But for the fun of it, I’ll tell you how. The tiny, elongated leaves of large cranberry, which you can see in my photos, are flat with rounded tips. The leaves of small cranberry, on the other hand, have pointed tips and recurved edges. Leaves of both species are green during the growing season, and turn reddish in fall (as can be seen in the photos).

Large cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon

Large cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon

Where to forage for wild cranberries

First, be sure you are looking within their geographic range. According to the USDA Plants Database map, the large cranberry grows within most of eastern North America (except for the southern-most states), the west coast, and the Northwest Territories. The small cranberry is found over most of northern North America.

Once you know you are within the range of either species, search for them in sunny, open areas with wet, acidic soil. These conditions are met in bogs, the classic cranberry habitat. But they also grow in moist soil near ponds and lakes. It’s convenient for you if the soil isn’t too wet, so you can get down on your hands and knees to pick them. Otherwise, foraging for wild cranberries can be a bit of a back breaker.

What to do with wild cranberries

Anything you can do with cultivated cranberries can be done with wild cranberries. Freeze them just as they are, make and can juice or sauce, roast them with diced winter squash and add them to a savory rice or quinoa dish, or toss a few into an apple pie. You can also try my Wild Cranberry Swirl Cheese Ice Cream.

Have you gathered wild cranberries? How do you use them?

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Cranberries from the wild — 18 Comments

  1. Pingback: Wild cranberry swirl cheese ice cream - One Acre Farm

  2. I have never heard of wild cranberries. I am not sure if I could find any in our area, will have to investigate!
    Thanks for sharing at the Home Acre Hop this week!

  3. Pingback: The HomeAcre Hop #44

  4. Cranberries are so healthy for us. I don’t live in an area where cranberries go wild but I found your information very interesting. thanks for sharing. Visiting from Jill Home Remedies.

  5. Wow! I never thought about foraging for cranberries, have to see if we have any here in Louisiana. However, we don’t have real cold winters here, and if the frost helps with the taste, we might be out of luck. Thanks for sharing on Tuesdays With a Twist.

  6. Just found wil cranberries while hiking in the Pocono Mountains. We are excited to go back in a few weeks to harvest! My husband and I are originally from Leominster and Groton, MA respectively. Nice to see a Central Mass blogger!

  7. I harvested about 15 pounds of wild cranberries today with a blueberry rake and my back is feeling it. We have already had about 2 frosts here in central Maine and a few of the berries will have to be thrown out but most are looking fine. Some still have yellow on them, will they ripen on a screen in the sun? I saw a neighbor doing this with his yellow berries. Thanks so much for your informative site, Paul

  8. Thanks for the feed back Janet, the reason I was asking about ripening is that, I’ve read that the berries wont ripen that way. My neighbor that used to do this passed away so I cant ask him, but he was a real woodsman. Last years cranberries were mostly all red when I got around to getting some, so we used them as is. My wife makes sauce with most of them, and I dry some in the dehydrator. Also going to dry some apples to mix them with. I’ll let you know how the ripening thing goes, Paul

  9. I harvested my berries the last Saturday in September. The weather has been cold here in Northern Michigan, and they need to be picked before the frost gets them. This means the prime picking time in my area is usually around October 1.

  10. Hi folks, the wild cranberries I raked about a month ago had lots of yellow still on them. I put them in our greenhouse on a screen door setting on two saw horses. Now they are about 95% red, so they actually do ripen if they have to be harvested early. Some years the berries will freeze before they ripen, so its OK to get some around the end of Sept. This year here in central Maine we have had lots of rain and the berries are now under water. Along with the rain and some help from the beavers my favorite cranberry bog is flooded. I can see thousands of berries that are under about 8 inches of water. The blueberry rake wont work in water, so this winter I will make my own cranberry rake so I can get them from the kayak or my fishing waders.

  11. I was given some cranberries that were hand picked last week they are not totally red as they should be so I have laid them out to see if they will get redder and notice that they are not as big someone said its because of the warm weather we got and no rain they did not get big I am going to wait until they get red I hope..

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