What Happened to the Crane Berry of Cape Cod?
The Crane Berry: Found and Lost
The nutritious Crane Berry, discovered on Cape Cod several hundreds of years ago was once invaluable to sailors. It vastly improved their overall health and prevented debilitating diseases like scurvy. The Native Americans shared their knowledge of the fruit with the Europeans in the 1500s and taught them how to use it as a food as well as the basis for an excellent, vivid dye for cloth.
Today, there are no Crane Berries anywhere, not even on the 64-mile-long island off the coast of Massachusetts where they were first found. Did this valuable food source simply dry up and disappear? Yes and no. Part of it disappeared and what remained is well known today, all over the globe.
What vanished was not the berry itself but the letter E. Some careless editor of a fledgling Colonial newspaper, writing a story on the uses of the berries, dropped the ‘E’ so that Crane Berry was miss-spelled as ‘Cran Berry’. As so often happens, the mistake was repeated so many times that the fruit eventually became known by the misnomer instead of its real name.
Crane Berries grew wild in Massachusetts and Cape Cod. The berries were found mostly in sandy bogs, growing in short shrubs and six foot long vines. Though they were native to most parts of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the heaviest concentration was in Cape Cod. In the 1800s, a farmer in South Dennis invented the modern cultivation methods that turned the little red berries into a multi-billion dollar industry.
Now that we have solved the mystery of the disappearance of the Crane Berry, here’s a new puzzle. Why was the marble sized berry given the name, Crane Berry? In the beginning, of course it wasn’t. The Native Americans called it ‘Sasemineash’. Roger Williams, who founded the Colony of Rhode Island termed them ‘Bear Berries’ because he frequently saw bears eating them.
In the mid 1600s, some people began using ‘Crane Berry’ when discussing the berries which by then had become popular in a red sauce which seemed to go especially well with duck, chicken, or turkey. By the year 1672 they were known by both names – Crane Berry and Bear Berry. Author John Josselyn wrote a book on ‘New England Rarities’ that year and said that Bear Berries, also called Crane Berries are used by the ‘Indians and English. They use them like mush, boiling them with sugar for sauce to eat with their meat; and it is a delicate sauce, especially with roasted mutton. Some make tarts with them as with gooseberries.”
The Bear Berry appellation soon fell by the wayside and today the fruit is known the world over by its current name ‘Cranberry’, derived from the original ‘Crane Berry’.
I’ll tell you how Crane Berries received their name…but first look at the picture and see if you can get some clues.
Where the Name Came From
The photograph shows the pink blossom of a Crane Berry plant in early spring. Colonial people admired the beauty of the buds and likened them to a long-legged bird frequently seen walking through the shallow bogs near the berry plants. The stem reminded them of a neck and the blossom gave the appearance of a crane’s head and bill. Thus the name – Crane Berry.