If you are looking to forage for Thanksgiving dinner, head out to a swampy piece of land and keep an eye out for wild cranberries.
Wild large cranberries are native plants found in most northeastern New England states, and are the same species — Vaccinium macrocarpon — as the ones you get at the grocery store, according to Tom Seymour, Waldo-based naturalist and author of “Wild Plants of Maine — A Useful Guide, Forager’s Notebook, Foraging New England.”
Searching for wild cranberries is a great way to experiment with foraging for beginners, as the tasty treats are easy to identify and are just as delicious as what you’re used to purchasing in the grocery store — but with the added element of adventure.
Not only do they taste the same, but they are fun to find and free to gather (as long as you forage responsibly and stay off of private property). Once you find a patch, they are also often abundant. Seymour said he will tote away 5-gallon buckets filled with cranberries on a good foraging day.
The foraging season for wild cranberries is best before the first heavy frost in Maine, so the season is longer than it used to be, Seymour said. Wild cranberries grow close to the ground on vines in wet, acidic soils, often in bogs and swampy areas.
“You could probably still go get them,” Seymour said. “The ideal setup is to find a slow moving stream with the riparian habitat of a boggy nature. Any place you find a sphagnum [moss] bog, you’re likely to find cranberries.”
Seymour said you can look for wild cranberries in the spring that have been leftover from the previous season, too — they will just be a little softer and more tart than their autumnal counterparts.
Watch your step when you’re searching for wild cranberries. Katie Sprague, a forager based in Hancock County, said that her last wild cranberry foraging escapade ended with “a little bit of swimming” when the peat raft she was walking on began to sink.
“It was ok until I went in over my boot tops and they filled with water. That weighed me down considerably, and it was all ‘swimming’ from there,” Sprague said. “Even with a boot dryer it took two weeks to get my insulated fishing boots fully dried out.”
Still, Sprague said, the experience was worthwhile.
“I forage for lots of food and this is just a part of that,” Sprague said. “There’s something uniquely satisfying about being able to walk in the woods and filling your freezer full of wild, free foods.”
To identify wild cranberries, Seymour said to simply compare them to the ones you would see in the supermarket.
“There’s absolutely no difference,” Seymour said. “Cranberries are cranberries.”
When you go to harvest them, use your fingers the same way you would use a blueberry rake.
Sprague will pick out a spot with white or green berries as early as July, and wait until September or October once they have ripened.
“You can pick them in their white stage,” Sprague said. “They’re perfectly edible at that point, but they are milder, with less cranberry zip, and obviously they don’t have the pretty color.”
Don’t be discouraged if your favorite patch looks like it has been picked over, either.
“If you find a patch that looks like it has been cleaned out, dig down into the moss,” Sprague said. “When they’re ripe they get heavier, and tend to kind of sink into the moss that grows around them.”
Once you harvest the wild cranberries, you can use them in many ways. Sprague said that she makes cranberry sauce and relishes with fresh wild cranberries, and muffins with dehydrated cranberries. Seymour also uses his wild cranberries for whole berry cranberry sauce, and also in stuffing for turkey, chicken or wild pheasants.
You can also store the berries — even under ripe ones — for later use. Keep whole, unwashed berries in a sealed bag in the freezer (Seymour said they will be good for a year or so). Meanwhile, Seymour said to keep the green and white ones in a shallow cardboard box in a dark spot, like a closet.
“Sort of like tomatoes, they’ll slowly ripen. Every week, paw through the cranberries and remove the red ones. They’re the easiest thing in the world to take care of, really.”
Despite the fact that you can buy cranberries in the grocery store, they are a good foraging project for beginners because they are easy to identify, do not have any toxic look alikes and are fun to gather in boggy places around Maine, Seymour said.
“It’s not that the product itself is different — it’s not,” Seymour said. “It’s just the idea that they’re wild and they’re free.”