Wild Cranberry Bogs Take Root in East Tennessee

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Tennessee cranberry bogs

Photo credit: Lynne Harty

Deep in the Shady Valley Nature Preserve in the northeastern part of the state, amid stands of pine trees and tall, warm-season grasses lies a scattering of fenced-off sections where dense, small dark green leaves crowned with ruby-red cranberries trail through the boggy wetland. Yes, cranberries.

“These were originally here, probably in the Ice Age,” says Kenneth McQueen, who manages the preserve for The Nature Conservancy of Tennessee, which works to restore the few mountain bog sites left in the area. “It is a very similar cranberry to what you would find in upstate Pennsylvania, but ours has not been domesticated.”

See more: 5 Cranberry Recipes That Add a Tart Touch to the Holidays

Once prolific throughout the state, the crop suffered tremendous loss due to encroachment of forests – cranberries need sun and acidic soil – and the draining of wetlands and streams.

Scientists discovered the first patch in Shady Valley during the 1970s in what is now known as Jenkins Cranberry Bog. The Nature Conservancy purchased the preserve in 1979 and later transferred it to East Tennessee State University for research and education. Today, across the road from the bog are 130 acres of Nature Conservancy land where experiments are underway to bring back cranberries and other native plants (as well as the critically endangered bog turtle). Conservationists from the U.S. Forest Service have also planted a few of the low-growing cranberry shrubs along the Appalachian Trail and in Grundy County.

Kenneth McQueen; Photo credit: Lynne Harty

Cool Cranberries

So how did these waxy, cold weather-loving berries end up in Tennessee?

“Our elevational floor here is about 2,900 feet, so we’re extremely high, and we are protected,” McQueen says. “We’ll always run about 10-15 degrees cooler than Bristol, although that’s only 30 minutes away. Our climate is what allows the cranberry to flourish here.”

The wild cranberries, which taste similar to the commercially grown type, are at their peak in the fall; they generally flower in September, and the berries start budding in October. They are not deliberately flooded like those grown for mass consumption, nor are they harvested like their more well- known counterparts in the Northeast and other states.

Tennessee cranberry bogs

Photo credit: Lynne Harty

Shhh … It’s a Secret

Farther south near Ducktown in Polk County, another cranberry bog currently claims the distinction as the southernmost one in the lower Appalachians. Punctuated by Eastern cotton grass and thick patches of sphagnum moss, the 120-acre site is owned by the state and managed by the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation’s (TDEC) Division of Natural Areas and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. The exact location is kept mum to protect its unique habitat.

Discovered in the late 1980s, this particular bog has been making a comeback to its original vegetation of more than a century ago. Here, the largest cranberry patch grows beneath a power line right-of-way that runs through the uplands.

Tennessee cranberry bogs

Photo credit: Lynne Harty

“The distribution of [cranberries in Tennessee] is very strange,” says Caitlin Elam, a botanist with TDEC. “It’s way up in the northeastern tip and then it’s way down in the southeastern tip, and sort of over the Cumberland Plateau.”

It’s important to protect the rare sites, Elam says, noting that cranberries were once abundant here and often used to make jams and other dishes, not just those served at Thanksgiving. “Somebody on horseback in the 1800s could’ve been riding near a large cranberry-dominated wetland, a very boggy habitat, to put it in perspective of what our ancestors may have seen and what that would’ve looked like,” she says. “That’s why we try to continue to protect the remnants of what that was, because we would lose that information forever if we were to lose those sites forever.

See more: How The Land Trust for Tennessee Works to Preserve Rural Landscapes

A Berry Fun Festival

Want to see the cranberry bogs for yourself? Then don’t miss the Shady Valley Cranberry Festival on Oct. 9-10. Held on the grounds of Shady Valley Elementary School on Highway 133, the festival has served as the school’s annual fundraiser since 1992. Activities include a bean supper and auction on Friday afternoon, parade on Saturday, multiple crafts and food vendors, music, helicopter rides, quilt displays, and more. The free cranberry bog tours at The Nature Conservancy’s Orchard Bog Preserve take place on Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. Learn more at facebook.com/cranberryfestival99.

If you can’t make it to the festival, the Orchard Bog Preserve is open for public visits. Guided tours are available, but please call ahead. For more information, call (423) 739-2441 or visit tnc.org.

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