How cranberries evolved into a Thanksgiving favorite

One secret to the cranberry's success is that it floats on water.

Workers harvest cranberries from a bog in New Jersey. One secret to the cranberry’s success is that it floats on water. (Keith Weller/USDA courtesy photo)

In the early days of the American Republic, one tiny, red fruit would become a fixture of the fall harvest and a mainstay of holiday meals. The cranberry — one of only a few commercial fruits native to North America — might have even sat beside a roast turkey at the first Thanksgiving feast.

But how did the tart cranberry become an industrial crop, with 800 million pounds grown annually, when other native fruits are so much sweeter? It wasn’t just the health benefits, clever marketing, or Grandma’s cranberry chutney — it was a happenstance of evolution. Cranberries float.

“Cranberries are very much associated with water,” said geneticist Nick Vorsa, who directs the Philip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research in Chatsworth, N.J. “You don’t find it very far away.”

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