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Where the Wild Cranberries Grow Nov 21 08

I’m sure you recognize these. After all, chances are excellent that you’ll be eating them in another week.

That’s right, cranberries! A traditional part of the Thanksgiving table—the tart, ideal counterpart to the rich fare of turkey, dressing, and sweet potatoes.

Good job! You’ve passed the Cranberry Identification Test. Big gold star for you.

It goes without saying, then, that you also recognize these.

What? You say you haven’t a clue? Can it truly be that one who has consumed such vast multitudes of cranberries over the many holiday seasons—one who just seconds ago breezed through the Cranberry Identification Test without straining a single brain cell—doesn’t recognize cranberry vines? Let us by all means correct this, so that next week, when you pile that tasty, red relish on your plate, you’ll enjoy it all the more for knowing a few things about cranberries and where they come from.

The only difference between the cranberries you buy at the store and the kind you’ll find in the wild is habitat. Commercial berries are grown in flat, level sand beds, slightly raised at the center for drainage. Since cranberries love moisture, the beds are irrigated regularly. When harvest time comes in late September and October, the area is flooded. A special harvester is then driven over the tops of the cranberry beds, and the cranberries float to the surface. The result is a spectacular sea of bobbing red berries, which are corralled into one area and then collected.

That’s the modern commercial approach, but it wasn’t always that way. Cranberries are a native, woody plant, and in the beginning, starting back with the Native Americans, they were harvested from the wild. You can collect them yourself if you’re so inclined, though you’ll need to exercise caution, as I’ll explain. First, though, you need to know where you can find them.

Time for another question: What do you see in this picture?

Hint: “A bunch of trees and grass and stuff” is not the correct answer.

You’re looking at a classic Michigan cranberry bog. Specifically, you’re looking at Saul Lake Bog, the first and still one of the more outstanding holdings of the Land Conservancy of West Michigan. Located to the north of Six Mile Road in Grattan Township, Saul Lake is one of numerous bogs in the kettlehole region east of Rockford.

It is quintessential wild cranberry habitat. Once you’ve found a place like this, finding the cranberries themselves is no great trick. Just walk out into the bog and look down. You’ll see the woody vines trailing everywhere across the sphagnum moss. And if you’re a wild plant buff, you’ll make some other delightful discoveries as well.

Don’t, however, plan on cranberry picking at Saul Lake. That location is protected, and the Conservancy urges visitors to stay on the boardwalk, not only to protect the sensitive habitat, but also to protect themselves.

Which brings me back to the point I had made earlier about exercising caution should you decide to go cranberry picking next year. Bogs can be treacherous places. In Michigan, most of them form as rafts of vegetation growing out over a lake. Sphagnum moss forms a thick, lush bed for a specialized community of plants to grow in. As the raft thickens over time, leatherleaf and other shrubs move in, and eventually, tamarack and black spruce trees.

The thing to remember, then, when you’re walking on a bog, is that you’re actually walking on a mat of plant material floating like a carpet on top of water. Give it a little bounce and you can actually see the bog quaking and undulating up to twenty feet away. Some areas are fairly solid, but others are quite thin, and the danger of falling through the mat is real.

My point: don’t go cranberry picking alone unless you’re familiar with the area. Stay away from areas near open water or the center of the bog, where the mat is likely to be thin. And besides a bucket, bring a good, stout walking stick to test the ground with and to give you some leverage should you in fact get stuck.

That being said, I have never had a mishap in a bog, and as an amateur naturalist, I’ve spent many years hanging out in such places. Treat them with respect and you’ll get much more out of picking cranberries than a bucket of berries. You’ll experience the pristine, exotic beauty of one of Michigan’s most unusual and unique landscapes, one that invites exploration at all times of year.

Have a happy and blessed Thanksgiving—and enjoy your cranberries.





Written by Dave.