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The science and tradition of thanksgiving cranberries

By Jean-Paul McDonald

Cranberries, synonymous with Thanksgiving, have a rich history and fascinating botany. While crops like sorghum and cotton have been cultivated for thousands of years, cranberries entered agriculture just 200 years ago. Originating in North America, they were an integral part of Native American diet, featuring in various traditional recipes. 

The journey of cranberries from wild berries to a cultivated crop began in Massachusetts in 1816. Now, states like Wisconsin and regions in Canada are major producers. Botanically, cranberries have hermaphroditic flowers, capable of self-pollination, though bees also aid in this process. They can be propagated both sexually, promoting genetic diversity, and asexually, allowing replication of successful varieties. 

Cranberries' unique feature of four air pockets not only enables them to float during harvest but also facilitates seed dispersal. Their ability to bounce is a freshness indicator. Genetically, cranberries are less complex compared to many crops, making them easier to breed for specific traits. 

The timing of the cranberry harvest coincides with Thanksgiving, establishing their place in holiday traditions. Their culinary history in America dates to the 1600s, with their tartness adding a distinct flavor to the festive meal. 

The cranberry industry has evolved, diversifying into products like juices and snacks. Yet, their traditional role in Thanksgiving meals remains a symbol of both cultural heritage and agricultural advancement. This narrative of cranberries demonstrates the blend of science, history, and tradition in our understanding of this unique fruit. 

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