As the busyness of summer subsides and early autumn slips into being I cherish my walks on the trails that meander through my 60-acres. Day-to-day I note the changes that signal the passing of one season into the next. Recently I've been watching the transition of the highbush cranberries as they turn from firm green to bright scarlet. They always remind me of Amanda Amy, the former publisher and editor of the Pine River Journal.
Some years ago I found myself amid the thistle, poison ivy and nettle as I collected clusters of juicy red, drooping berries from the native highbush cranberry shrubs that grow on the spit of land that juts between the lake and wetland just beyond the area I call Beaver Crossing. Amanda and I liked to chat when I dropped my column off at the newspaper office in Pine River. One day I mentioned the cranberries to Amanda. She said the berries made delightful jelly and offered to produce a batch if I would collect the cache. We both complied and later she presented me with several small jars of a deliciously different, smooth and snappy jelly.
Several elderly friends also told me they often ate highbush cranberries when they were kids. All mentioned their mothers made jelly from the fruit and one said she vividly remembered eating highbush cranberry sauce with fresh cream.
The tangy berries, high in vitamin C, may be eaten raw (cooked or dried), used in preserves and pies or made into wine. To make a pleasant colorful drink, simmer the berries, mash, strain out seeds and skins, and add water and sugar to taste. Serve hot or cold.
Although not related to the cultivated cranberry, highbush fruit may be substituted for cranberry sauce. The sauce is made very much like applesauce and served plain or, as my friend recalled, with milk or cream poured over it. Native Americans not only ate the fruit, but also utilized the plant for medicinal purposes. For example, an extract from the bark was used as a uterine sedative to quell menstrual discomfort.
While referred to as highbush cranberry, the plant is a virburnum and a cousin to the elderberry rather than the cranberry. In some localities, it is known as the squashberry or mooseberry.
In 1914 Melvin R. Gilmore, distinguished botanist and ecologist, proposed the common name be "pembina" because he felt the berry was nothing like a cranberry. Also, pembina, the white man's corruption of "nepin-minan" (the Ojibwe name for the berry), was already commonly applied to the shrub by people in North Dakota and Manitoba. Obviously, his suggestion fell on deaf ears.
The highbush cranberry stands 3 to 10 feet tall and inhabits woods, thickets, bogs and stream banks throughout Canada and the northern tier of the U.S. White flowers blossom in May and June with the berries maturing in late August and September. Often in the midst of winter the clinging crimson berry clusters present a beautiful contrast to the whiteness of the snow.
Wildlife eat not only the berries, but moose and deer browse on the slender stems too. Fox, bears, squirrels and chipmunks consume the berries as an important source of winter food. Songbirds such as cardinals, robins, thrashers, thrushes and cedar waxwings, as well as grouse, pheasants and turkeys also seek out the succulent fruit.
The berries seem particularly prolific this year, so if you're interested now is the time to collect some and make a batch of jelly. If you're too busy now there will be time in the coming weeks since the berries may still be harvested after hard frosts.
I'm including two jelly recipes with this column. Others may be found in wild and natural food cookbooks, such as Alma Christensen's "For Soul and Kitchen Wild Food Cookbook". Alma lives near Pine River so if you're looking for a good local cookbook you may want to give her call. I know the book is marketed in some area stores, but if you can't find it you may order it by contacting her.
Here are two recipes for highbush cranberry jelly.
2 cups cranberry juice (about 1 pint of fruit), 1-1/2 cups of sugar.
Wash berries. Put in large pot; add 3 cups water for each pint of fruit. Mash berries as they cook. Boil for 3-5 minutes. Put fruit in damp jelly bag to extract juice. Measure juice, add sugar, stir well. Boil over high heat until jelly sheets from a spoon (about 216 degrees F.). Remove from heat, skim off foam. Pour into hot containers; seal with two-part lids and process in boiling water for 10 minutes.
6 cups of berries, 1 package Sure-Jell, 5 cups of sugar
Crush berries; cover with about 4 cups water. Boil 6-7 minutes. Put in jelly cloth to strain the juice off. You should have about 3-1/2 cups of juice, if not, run a little water through the berries again to make that much.
To 3-1/2 cups of juice, add Sure-Jell; stir while bringing to a rolling boil. At once add 5 cups sugar, bring mixture to a rolling boil again and boil for one minute. Let set for a minute, skim top foam off. Pour in jelly glasses; cover with hot paraffin to seal. Makes about 6-1/2 glasses of jell.
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