CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The cranberry is colorful, but it usually plays second fiddle to all the other trimmings that accompany the fowl star of the Thanksgiving day meal -- green beans, potatoes, the dressing and even the deviled eggs. Just a dollop on the side as an afterthought. They sink even lower on the scale if they come in a solid can-shaped blob that's sliced up beside the turkey.
This is such a cruel fate for one of the few native fruits in North America that is grown commercially (it's joined by its relatives the blueberry, Concord grapes, strawberries, black raspberries, black cherries and several others not found on the commercial market).
The native species of cranberry, the one grown commercially, is Vaccinium macrocarpon. This and the other species of cranberries are spread throughout the cool, temperate areas of North America.
Cranberry Glades, boreal-type bogs found in Pocahontas County in the Monongahela National Forest, do indeed host a few cranberry species. Cranberries are also closely related to blueberries, bilberries and lingonberries (a Scandinavian staple), and all of these plants are in the genus Vaccinium. They are in the Ericaceace family, along with rhododendrons and azaleas, and they share a preference for acidic soil.
We don't know for sure if cranberries were on the menu for the first Thanksgiving in 1621, but American Indians did use the fruit much earlier for both food and dye. Records indicate that Indians combined the tart berries with meat and fat to form a survival food called pemmican.
The word "cranberry" came about as a derivation of craneberry, which is what early settlers called the plant because they thought the delicate flower resembled a crane. During the time of the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims' store of sugar was also almost depleted, therefore it is unlikely that cranberries were eaten during the first celebration (it wouldn't have been a fun party if everyone had a puckered-up face).
Cranberry sauce doesn't show up in the records until 50 years after the first Thanksgiving, and it didn't really become a holiday tradition until Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ordered it served to troops for the Thanksgiving meal in 1864.