For gardeners, Thanksgiving is a special holiday, a time to celebrate the harvest and put it on the table, just as the Pilgrims did hundreds of years ago. Most gardeners today grow some form of the traditional fare of corn, beans, or squash. But do you know anyone who grows cranberries?
Even in areas of the country where cranberry is native, it’s found only in special habitats, where the soil is very acidic and boggy. If you did not want to re-create these conditions, you could still grow cranberries – one of the many other plants that have this name, even if they are not the real Thanksgiving cranberry.
Easiest to grow would be highbush cranberry, similar to the Thanksgiving cranberry only in that both plants bear tart, red berries. Our Thanksgiving cranberry is a low, sprawling, evergreen shrub; highbush cranberry is a deciduous shrub growing 10 feet high. And highbush cranberry requires no special soil conditions.
You can appreciate highbush cranberry well before Thanksgiving arrives and long after it passes. In spring, the plant is awash with clusters of white flowers, which are transformed by late summer into drooping umbels of bright, red berries. In autumn, leaves of this plant turn fiery shades of yellow and red.
Once the seeds are removed, the berries cook into a glistening red jelly. Two cautions are worth mentioning, though. First, do not be put off by the awful smell of cooking highbush cranberries. The finished jelly should not retain any of that aroma. (And it is absent from berries harvested fully plump.) Second, do not confuse highbush cranberry with its look-alike, European cranberrybush.
Fruits of the latter species taste horrible.
If you want to grow something botanically closer to the true Thanksgiving cranberry, consider lingonberry, also known as mountain cranberry, cowberry, or foxberry.
Fruits of this creeping, evergreen shrub are similar to those of the Thanksgiving cranberry, but a bit sweeter. Lingonberry is native to the northern rim of the Old World and Asia, enjoyed with sauteed reindeer in Finland, raw in Korea, and made into wine and pickles in Japan. To give lingonberry plants the cool summer weather they enjoy, plant them on a northern slope or in part shade.
They need an acidic soil that is rich in humus, but a bog is not necessary.
Lingonberry’s compact stems, densely clothed in what resemble miniature holly leaves, provide a perfect backdrop for the bright, red berries.