While a lot of folks see the turkey as the star of the Thanksgiving dinner, in my mind it is the cranberry. Yes, both are species native to this continent, the cranberry being just one of a handful of berries that are natives. Blueberries, huckleberries and farkleberries are the other recognized native berries.

In truth, no Thanksgiving dinner is complete without the capstone dish — cranberry sauce. Throughout my youth, that “sauce” was a jellied cylinder popped out of a can. That insipid accompaniment was but a pale imitation of true cranberry sauce. No wonder its popularity wasn’t exactly high.

Back then, fresh cranberries simply were not widely available in grocery stores. Thankfully, they are a holiday staple these days, and I always buy a few extra bags of those little ruby-colored gems to stash in the freezer for a variety of baked goods and for more sauce as needed.

Today cranberries are showing up enrobed in rich chocolate in hi-end confections, dried and sweetened for snacking and baking, fresh (seasonally), frozen, as juices and cocktail mixes and as concentrated juice, along with the traditional cans of jellied and whole cranberry sauces.

While it is possible to grow cranberries yourself, success is dependent on a variety of factors.

First requirement is an acid peat soil, next an adequate fresh water supply, and a growing season that extends from April to November. Cranberries grow on low-lying vines in beds layered with sand, peat, gravel and clay. Anyone dedicated enough to provide that environment is to be applauded and admired for their dedication to this American berry.

Those in the know probably have a number of lakeside sites where they can gather wild cranberries, many being closely-held secret spots. A good friend guided me to one of those with public access years ago, and it did not take long to gather enough berries for our holiday side dish. So easy to prepare, your own home-made cranberry sauce is guaranteed to be a hit of the meal (use the recipe on the bag), delicious and nutritious too. I like to cut back a bit on the sugar.

From: “Healthline” an online news source, we learn that: cranberries are primarily composed of carbs and fiber, with simple sugars, such as sucrose, glucose and fructose and insoluble fiber — such as pectin, cellulose and hemicellulose — which pass through the gut almost intact.

They also contain soluble fiber, and excessive consumption of cranberries may cause digestive symptoms, such as diarrhea.

Cranberries are a storehouse of several vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin C. and some other vitamins found in significant amounts in cranberries include Vitamin E, Vitamin K1 and Copper.

In addition cranberries contain unique plant compounds known as A-type proanthocyanidins, which may cut the risk of stomach cancer by preventing H. pylori from attaching to the lining of your stomach. Here are some health benefits of consuming cranberries:

  • Increases HDL (good) cholesterol levels
  • Lowers levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol in people with diabetes
  • Protects LDL (bad) cholesterol from oxidation
  • Decreases stiffness in blood vessels among people with heart disease
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Decreases blood levels of homocysteine, thus cutting risk of inflammation in blood vessels
  • Helps prevent urinary tract infections and cuts risk of stomach cancers

On the flip side, according to Healthlink, consuming too many cranberries or cranberry products could lead to an increased instance of kidney stones, which are made of calcium oxalate. Concentrated cranberry extracts are reported to contain high levels of oxalates.

If you like to bake and have some cranberries handy, consider baking up a pair of fragrant coffee cakes bursting with cranberry goodness. Find the recipe on my blog at gardeningonthego.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/cranberry-orange-braid-coffee-cakes.

Lynette L. Walther is the GardenComm Gold medal winner for writing and a five-time recipient of the GardenComm Silver Medal of Achievement, the National Garden Bureau’s Exemplary Journalism Award. Her gardens are in Camden.