Story last updated at 12/9/2009 - 11:49 am
Crunchy footsteps fill the crisp morning air, intruding on the snowy quiet of the small muskeg. I continue slowly across the bog, my head bent toward the ground, searching intently.
"How long before we give up this futile quest?" demands my partner in crime - this would-be cranberry picker turned unbeliever. He notes our success rate so far, which is two.
The cranberry harvest had been poor this year and now, with everything mostly covered in snow, I suppose it is time to abandon pursuit of the tasty, nutritious fruit. Still, there were little clear areas around the edges of the trees and puddles that held promise.
"Never give up!" I call back, "Here's another one. That makes three!"
The shocking absence of cranberries this year may have resulted from the unusually hot weather this summer, but production was certainly off where I had been searching over the past months. I found them missing completely from several large, previously productive bogs - only plants, but lacking berries. One bog had saved the day for me with a moderate harvest but other foragers also reported dismal findings.
The berry I seek is the true (bog) cranberry. Its thin, thread-like stem grows low to the ground as it creeps over the sphagnum moss. Along its length protrude adorable, tiny leaves up to the tip of the stem where one small, pink bell-shaped flower precedes a plump, red berry (hopefully).
The true cranberry persists all over the muskegs, often around their small ponds.
Depending on moisture, the color of the sphagnum moss varies from pale green to orange to dark red, making the round or tear-drop shaped cranberries difficult to detect as they transition from unripe white to pink to a ripe red.
Be wary of their sneaky ways. In an area of deep, plush mossy carpet, bog cranberries will see you coming and dive for cover. I've witnessed this behavior many times and have pretty much ruled out any connection to influences I may be contributing by walking there. I'm on to their clever tricks.
Once you have successfully discovered a cranberry, the next obstacle to overcome is the lengthy distance from your fingertips to the elevation of their habitat. If you are really lucky you can bend down to that location repeatedly for a couple hours and acquire not only a nice basket of berries but a pretty good indication of your tolerance for back pain. There's also the option to crawl around on your knees.
Berries nibbled in the field can be quite tart but their enjoyment is improved by cooking and sweetening into traditional cranberry sauce, juice or baked goods. The high pectin content helps when processing into jams and jellies. These berries also store very well dry or frozen.
The other cranberry that grows well in our maritime climate is the lingonberry (lowbush) cranberry. Lingonberries prefer a bit of shade and are often found around the perimeter of the muskeg near trees. Their evergreen leaves alternate up the stem which is usually six inches or shorter, topped off in summer with clusters of white flowers to be replaced by clusters of dark, red berries. They are a bit easier to find than the bog berry.
The lingonberry, known for its fantastic flavor, excels in nutbreads, muffins, jams, wine and liquors. In many recipes, bog and lowbush can be mixed together.
The so-called high bush cranberry is not actually a cranberry (heath family) but is in the honeysuckle family. It thrives along riverbanks and roads, reaching over eight feet tall. It does not interchange well with cranberry recipes and the raw berries can have a sour, musty odor. They do make delicious sauces and jams in their own right, however, when sweetened and cooked.
Cranberries can be harvested throughout the winter and spring (if only they can be found under the snow) and their exceptional nutritional value and taste makes it well worthwhile to keep looking. I'll never give up!
Carla Petersen is a remote-living freelance artist and writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org