For the past 160 years every autumn, the diminutive island of Nantucket has turned scarlet, thanks to the cranberry harvest. The fields are deliberately flooded and the submerged vines are beaten to detach the ripe, red berries, which then float to the surface.
This tart, wild, native berry was a superfood for Native Americans. The Wampanoag, indigenous to what is now New England, called them ibimi – bitter berry – and used them for cooking, medicine and dyeing fabric. They introduced them to the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620 – and legend has it that they were part of the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621 (although the now-traditional cranberry sauce didn’t appear until 1912). English settlers dubbed them “craneberries”, because their pink flowers resemble the head of a sandhill crane.
Grown on low vines in beds known as “bogs”, lined with peat, gravel and clay and topped with sand, a strong vine can survive for many years, given a supply of fresh water. Commercial cultivation began in Nantucket in 1857, and by the 1950s the island’s Milestone Bog was the world’s largest contiguous cranberry bog.
Today, the Nantucket Conservation Foundation cultivates the island’s two commercial cranberry bogs – an area of 232 acres, which can produce around 900 tonnes of fruit a year. Windswept Bog has been organic since 2001, and Milestone Bog is following suit. The bogs are tied in with conservation: every acre of bog is supported by four to 10 acres of wildlife-rich wetlands and woodland.
While they’re rich in vitamin C (New England sailors ate them on long whaling expeditions to prevent scurvy), the versatile fruit can be put to many uses. To try some of the best Nantucket cranberry pie, head to Bartlett’s Farm; for boozy options, the island’s artisan Cisco Brewers has created a tasty Cranberry Woods beer; and the Nautilus Nantucket restaurant’s signature cocktail is made with fresh cranberry juice, tequila and lime.