Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


Vaccinium macrocarpon

By Hugh Murphy

Common names:  cranberry, lingonberry, cowberry (from the Latin vacca which means “cow,” since cranberries were a favorite food among cows), Sassamenesh (Algonquin name), and ibimi (Wampanoag and Lenni Lenape name)

Cousins from the Vaccinium genus, cranberries and blueberries are two of the most popular and enduring foods of the western hemisphere.  Over 100 known varieties stretch across the acidic bogs and marshes of North America.  The U.S. is responsible for most of the world’s cranberry market with the bulk of production coming from 30,000 acres in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Oregon and Washington (Kavasch, 48). 


Cranberries grown on the small, creeping vines of an evergreen shrub commonly found in cold-water bogs and marshes.  These vines support thick clusters of pink flowers beginning in spring, which then give way to small, red berries in late summer.  Many American Indian tribes, particularly the Algonquin and Wampanoag of New England, would wade into the cranberry marshes to harvest ripe berries from Labor Day through October. 

In contrast to the heavily sugared cranberry sauce popular at today’s Thanksgiving celebrations, fresh cranberries have an extremely tart or bitter taste.  The Wampanoag and Lenni Lenape (Delaware) tribes called the berries “ibimi,” meaning “bitter” or “sour berries” (Kavasch, 48). 



Cranberries were an important food source for many American Indian tribes.  The coastal Algonquin, Wampanoag tribe holds a festival in Martha’s Vineyard each October to celebrate the cranberry harvest.  Similar festivals were held in Cape Cod and farther south in Delaware where the Lenni Lanape chief, Pakimintzen became famous for his annual cranberry holidays (Kavasch, 48). 

Fresh berries were often eaten raw or dried and stored for later use.  Dried berries were a popular addition to pemmican.  Ground berries were added to soups and flour as flavoring, boiled down into a sauce, or mixed with maple syrup and saved for winter (Berzok, 60).  The preservative benzoic acid occurs naturally in cranberries, thus making them well suited for storage (Davidson, 223). 


Cranberries are especially rich in vitamin C, which may have helped some tribes ward off sickness during the winter months. 



Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.  
Berzok, Linda Murray. American Indian Food.  Westport, CT:  Greenwood Press, 2005. 

Kavasch, Barrie E.  Enduring Harvests.  Old Saybrook, CT:  Globe Pequot Press, 1995.