Saturday, December 26, 2015

Talking Turkey in the Garden

Don’t forget the cranberry sauce. It’s absolutely essential with turkey and, like the turkey, cranberries are native to North America. It’s not surprising then they go so well together. In fact, if I had to eat one without the other, it would be the cranberry sauce. 

Cranberries were an important staple for Native Americans, who used the berries mixed with grains, meat, and animal fat to produce cakes of pemmican, traditional travelling food. Aboriginal people shared their turkeys with the first pilgrims, but I don’t know if there was cranberry sauce on hand.

The pilgrims, however, came up with the name cranberry, or rather crane berry, apparently because they thought the blossom resembled a crane. I suppose it could just as easily have been called the heron berry or stork berry. It wasn’t long before early settlers were using the berries to make sauces and supply seafarers with scurvy fighting vitamin C.

 I’d grow them in my garden if I could, but the conditions aren’t suitable. One of the tricks to growing cranberries successfully was discovered in 1816 by Captain Henry Hall, a veteran of the war of independence in the US. He discovered that spreading sand over the bogs where the cranberries grew naturally increased the berry yield.

Commercial growers take advantage of ideal conditions in the Muskoka region of Ontario where the soil is sandy and moist with layers of peat, which makes it acidic. My soil, like most around the here, is clay with a pH value that is neutral to alkaline. Cranberry grows as a sprawling vine and needs little pruning. Once planted, they rarely need replacing and continue to produce berries providing the flowers are pollinated, primarily by honey bees.

Thanks to popular photographs showing lakes covered with berries, it’s understandable that many believe they are grown in water, or cranberry paddies, I suppose. Not so. The photos are taken during harvesting when the fields are purposely flooded. A small air pocket inside each berry causes it to pop to the water surface when shaken from the stem. The shaking, or raking, once done by hand with special rakes, is now accomplished by machines that gently comb the vines releasing the berries. They are then corralled and it’s off to the processor.

Unless you have a suitable boggy area in your garden, the only alternative is to grow them in a large container.  The turkey sauce cranberry is Vaccinium macrocarpon, not to be confused with the Highbush cranberry (Viburnam trilobum), better known as viburnum, the spring flowering shrub. It also produces fruit which, like the true cranberry, can be used to make wines, sauces, and jellies.

Although these plants are not related, growing conditions are much the same. The viburnum is also extremely winter hardy, as it should be, being a native Canadian. It’s the ideal shrub for shady, moist places alongside a stream or in a boggy river bottom, where moist soil ensures it grows well as its shallow roots make it susceptible to drought.

Planting the right plant in the right place is the key to success in gardening. To help the gardener in your life and take care of that last minute gift, consider The Toronto Gardener’s Journal by Margaret Bennet-Alder. This is the twenty-fourth year Margaret has produced this very useful source of information for gardeners in the Golden Horseshoe. Copies can be ordered online at Now, let me at that leftover turkey — AND the cranberry sauce, please.

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