Some people find this surprising, but varieties of cranberries were known to Europeans when they arrived in North America. Vaccinium oxycoccus (Northern Cranberry) and Vaccinium microcarpus (Small cranberry) are both native species in Britain. The English called them fen berry or moor-berries. The Welsh called them llygaeron and Ceiros-y-waun. Clan Grant in Scotland wore Mùileag as their heraldic emblem into the 19th century.[1] In Ireland you also saw it referred to as monog (peat berry).[2]

They certainly weren’t unique to the UK though, V. oxycoccus grew all over the Northern hemisphere, including Sweden and Russia. The name cranberry seems to have gotten its start in Sweden where it was called tran-bœr (crane-berry) which the Germans translated as krahn-beere, and the English pronounced that cranberry. In Germany they were also called moos-beere because they grow best in sphagnum peat moss. Cranberry was called alirs in parts of northern Asia.

Whatever people chose to call the berries, they have been used in Europe for millennia. V. oxycoccus was one of the ingredients of a Nordic grog (fermented mead, beer, and fruit) buried with a young woman who died sometime between 1500 and 1300 BCE in Egtved, Denmark.[3] This use seemed to persist because in 1902 botanist Frederick Hulme wrote that “on the continent they are by Fermentation made into a kind of a wine” meant to be “an acidulous cooling beverage for the hot weather.”[4]

Northern cranberry particularly thrived in the lowland raised bogs of the Scotland. The fruits have been harvested for centuries from bogs near Carsegowan Moss, Loch Ardinning and Largiebaan at the southern end of the Kintyre peninsula. In 1777, Lightfoot wrote:

“On the borders of Cumberland, they made so considerable an article of commerce that at the season when they are ripe, not less than 20 or 30 pounds worth are sold by the poor people each market day for five or six weeks.”[5]

Lightfoot wrote that in the UK they were mostly being sold for making cranberry tarts. They are quite fond of their cranberry tarts in the UK. Sir William Hooker whose botanical books rarely mentioned foodstuffs or medicinals mentioned that this species makes “the best of tarts.”[6]

It goes without saying that there is a species of cranberry native to the North American continent and that Indigenous people here undoubtedly had their own ways of knowing the plant, but that is not my story to tell. If someone finds a great article about that send me an e-mail so I can link it here.

For a people so conditioned by English physicians like Timothy Bright and Nicholas Culpeper, to believe that English plants were best for English bodies, there’s no doubt they were quite glad to see the familiar looking cranberries. In 1672, John Josselyn reported “The.English ufe them much, boyling them with Sugar for Sauce to eat with their Meat”[7]

In 1771, Peter Kalm a Swedish visitor to the Philadelphia markets spoke of cranberries sold there saying, “the American ones are bigger, but in most things so like the Swedish ones, that many people would take them to be mere varieties.” It is also worth pointing out that many Canadian Indigenous people were using the V. oxycoccus not Vaccinium macrocarpon, which we are most familiar with these days. This species has a really limited growing range.

What’s kind of ironic given all the fuss about cranberry being a new world plant, is that in England they didn’t even really like American cranberries. When demand for the berries became too great for local gatherers to fulfill, the English began importing cranberries from Russia and Sweden. English botanists were saying as late as 1844 that they believed the Russian cranberries to be of superior quality to the American species.[8] The aforementioned Frederick Hulme, professor of botany at King’s College, refused to call the American species a “true” cranberry. An American publication written a decade later confirms this saying:

“On many of the vast steppes of Russia wild cranberries abound, and even amid the wastes of Siberia it is occasionally to be met with. Indeed, the Russian cranberries proved for a long time to be no inconsiderable exports of that country, and even until the breaking out of the Eastern War, there were to be seen…quaint looking earthen jars which contained cranberries for the use of the lords and ladies of London.”[9]

Cranberries as Medicine

As l switch gears here to talk about medicinal uses I should point out that the Latin word oxycoccus literally translates to “acid berry” and the physicians used them the way they did many sour, acidic fruits.

The earliest documentation I have found of the use of cranberries medicinally is in an Irish monastic manuscript on wound care.  The earliest extent version we have of that manuscript has been dated to 1352 CE.  They used the seeds in a drink given to people with inflamed wounds. [10]

In 1554, The Dutch physician Dodoens wrote that the bushes grew in “low, moyste places” of Holland and that like other tart berries marrish whortle “quenche thirste, and are good against hoate feuers or agues, and against all euil inflammation or heate of blood, and the inwarde partes.”[11] In 1597, Gerard spoke of gathering the wild berries he called marrish whortes or fenne-berries near Cheshire and Staffordshire. He wrote of their properties:

 “They take away the heate of the burning agues, and also the drought, they quench the furious heate of choler, they stay vomiting, restore an appetite to meat which was lost by reason of cholerick and corrupt humors, and are good against the pestilent diseases. The juice of these also is boyled till it be thicke, with sugar added that it may be kept, which is good for all things that the berries, yea a nd far better.” [12]

Here in Gerard’s entry written before the “first Thanksgiving” we see the reasoning behind the fact people were serving cranberry sauces with turkey and making cranberry wine. People in Britain and Ireland continued to call the berries marsh whortles or fen berries.[13]

What is less well known is that when the Mayflower first landed one the books on board was a copy of the aforementioned Doedens’ herbal belonging to Elder Brewster. We also know that a letter was sent by Dr. Edward Stafford of London to Governor John Winthrop in Boston, 6 May 1643 containing receipts from Gerard’s herbal that he might find useful, so it’s possible that they had two different sources suggesting that there was a medicinal benefit to serving the sauce/syrup with meat.[14]

Interestingly you don’t see much mention of a specific use for urinary tract infection, just general usefulness against inflammation and hot symptoms. Mongolian traditional folk medicine included using the berries and leaves for longevity and coughs. [15]

In 1863, botanist John Balfour wrote that the leaves of the plant were “sometimes used to adulterate uva ursi.”[16] Scientific analysis of the leaves has revealed that they contain the same chemical (arbutin) as uva ursi and pear skins. Arbutin, which is not found in the berries, is hydrolyzed to hydroquinone in the urinary tract.

It’s possible the whole plant effect might have contributed to a more specific usefulness in the days when people were a bit less fussy about some leaves getting mixed into their berries.  It’s more likely that modern herbal clinicians are confused about the uses of berries and leaves.

So there you have a very brief history of the European use of cranberries, which seems to have been largely forgotten.

[1] Phillips, Henry. Floral Emblems. London, England: Saunders and Otley, 1825. pp 14.

[2] Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire for the Year … Society, 1876.

[3] McGovern, Patrick E., Gretchen R. Hall, and Armen Mirzoian. “A Biomolecular Archaeological Approach to ‘Nordic Grog.’” Danish Journal of Archaeology 2, no. 2 (November 1, 2013): 112–31.

[4] Hulme, Frederick Edward. Wild Fruits of the Country-Side. Hutchinson, 1902. pp 232.

[5] Lightfoot, John. Flora Scotica: Or a Systematic Arrangement in the Linnaean Method of the Native Plants of Scotland and the Hebrides. Vol. 1. London, England: Printed for B. White, At Horace’s Head, 1777. pp. 203.

[6] Hooker, William Jackson, and George Arnott Walker Arnott. The British Flora : Comprising the Phaenogamous or Flowering Plants, and the Ferns /. Vol.1. London, 1855. pp. 262.

[7] Josselyn, John. New-England’s Rarities Discovered in Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents, and Plants of That Country. Edited by Edward Tuckerman. Boston : William Veazie, 1865.

[8] Loudon, J.C. Arboretum Et Fruticetum Britannicum. Vol. II. London, England: Longman, Orme, Green and Longmans, 1844.

[9] Eastwood, B. A Complete Manual for the Cultivation of the Cranberry: With a Description of the Best Varieties. New York, NY: C. M. Saxton, 1856. pp 14.

[10] Anon. ‘On Wounds’. Translated by Wulff,Winifred, 1352. MS 23 F 19. Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition.

[11] Dodoens, Rembert. A Nievve Herball, or Historie of Plantes. Translated by Henry Lyte. 1578 Translation.. London, England: AT LONDON by my Gerard Dewes, dwelling in Pawles Churchyarde at the signe of the Swanne, 1554.

[12] Gerard, John. The Herball Or Generall Historie of Plantes. London, England: Norton, John, 1597. pp. 1367.

[13] Newman, L. F. “Some Notes on Folk Medicine in the Eastern Counties.” Folklore 56, no. 4 (1945): 349–60.

[14] Gifford, George. “Botanic Remedies in Colonial Massachusetts, 1620–1820.” In Medicine in Colonial Massachusetts. Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1978.

[15] WHO. Medicinal Plants in Mongolia. World Health Organization, Regional Office for the Western Pacific., 2013.

[16] Balfour, John Hutton. A Manual of Botany. A. and C. Black, 1863.

Published by Stephany Riley Hoffelt

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