There won’t be much of a mystery with this one, as it is quite familiar, appearing repeatedly during the holiday season. The fruits are edible: tart and crunchy, lending themselves to a myriad of recipes, especially centered around the perfect sauce. Lumpy and pink, like Pepto-Bismol? Or smooth, glistening and red? Maybe mixed up with ground walnuts or even some minced jalapeno. Everyone has their favorite version, and there always seems to be place for it at the holiday table, right next to the pickle tray.
Our plant is a true American native, occurring in natural populations from the southern Appalachians (high elevations) well into New England, and then westward into the Great Lakes. It is a member of the heath family (Ericaceae), and is rather closely related to a number of different blueberry species. Typically, the plants grow in damp places, commonly in extensive sphagnum bogs. Their matted stems are low and creeping, with dark, shiny evergreen leaves about an inch long, and the stalked flowers are produced on upright branches. Plants bloom in the summer: each flower has five, white, fused petals, with the free lobes flaring backward. The fruits are technically berries, containing a number of tiny seeds, and they are brilliant red when ripe. Interestingly, one variety, from West Virginia, has bright green ripe berries.
The plants have been cultivated since early in the 19th Century, and a thriving industry has developed from their culture. Most of this industry is centered in Wisconsin, actually, but Massachusetts and New Jersey are also leading producers. At harvest time, the plots in which the plants grow are flooded, and the ripe fruits easily gathered as they float. The berries are prized as a tasty treat, especially for the seasonal sauce and various goodies that they render. (For you cooks, I’m told that the fresh berries will bounce when thrown on a table top. Not fresh, no bounce.) Otherwise, the commercially available juice from the fruits is full of vitamin C, antioxidants, and other healthful things, and it has been shown to be at least somewhat useful in treating urinary tract infections, and in combating oral bacteria. But everybody knows that the most important thing about this plant is the sauce.
It reminds me of the story about the lady who kept trying to come up with the perfect sauce for her husband, but who was never happy with what she invented. Time after time, each of her attempts was rejected. In desperation, she just bought a can of the sauce at the supermarket, and slid the whole thing, cylindrical, red, and wet, plopping out onto a plate. Her husband loved it. He said: “Honey, this sauce is wonderful! Just like Mom used to make!”
John Nelson is the curator of the Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia, SC 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call (803) 777-8196.
[Answer: “Cranberry,” Vaccinium macrocarpon]