Cranberries are the staple fruit of Christmas, creating the sauce synonymous with turkey or adding warmth to winter punches, relishes and jellies.
These beautiful deep red berries aren’t only popular with us though, they are also adored by wetland birds, so this year, Wildfowl and Wetland Trust wetland centres all across the country are holding their first ever Craneberry Fest – a celebration of the famous wetland fruit and an iconic wetland bird, the crane, after which cranberries are named. From November 30 until January 26, WWT Wetland Centres, supported by Ocean Spray, will be showing visitors how to make beautiful cranberry decorations for the tree and cranberry bird feeders.
They’re not widely grown in this country, although specialist fruit nurseries may offer a few types and the RHS also sells them.
“Cranberries like boggy soil conditions and it’s quite difficult to create an environment in which they thrive in the UK,’ says Leigh Hunt, principal horticultural adviser with the RHS. “But we can control the moisture and soil type by planting them in containers.”
The plants do have some visual worth, as they are evergreen and low growing, with pink bell flowers.
Cranberry ‘Pilgrim’, for instance, is a low-growing, evergreen cranberry with small, leathery leaves on lax stems that have an arching habit. Its attractive shape can be best admired when planted in a container so it can cascade over the sides of the pot. The tiny pinkish-red flowers appear in spring and are followed by tart dark red berries, a regular superfood packed with nutrients and vitamins. ‘Early Black’ has a spreading habit, evergreen leaves and large dark blue, fairly sweet fruit.
If you have problems with drainage in your garden, the cranberry might actually be for you. They need extremely acidic soil, with a pH of less than 5, and semi-bog conditions. They prefer sun but will also withstand light shade.
If you’re planting them in the ground, dig a hole 40cm (16in) deep and line the base and sides with plastic sheeting. Fill with an ericaceous compost and mulch with 5cm (2in) of sawdust or wood shavings. Punch a few small holes in the sides of the plastic just above the bottom to allow water to seep out. If you can, use rain water to thoroughly wet the compost and trample it like grapes until the soil is soaking. “Keeping them well watered is really important and early to mid-summer is critical,” adds Hunt.
In spring, feed the plants with sulphate of ammonia, sulphate of potash and bonemeal and top-dress with ericaceous compost.
If you are growing in pots you can control the conditions more effectively by spring planting in peaty ericaceous compost enhanced with around 10% lime-free grit. For more details of the Craneberry Fest, go to www.wwt.org.uk