Working With Cranberries!

Feb 1, 2017 By Dr. Erika Rojas
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Did you know that cranberries are some of the very few cultivated fruits that are native to North America? Also, they are related to blueberries, which is another popular, native fruit.

Many people think that cranberries grow in water, but they don’t. Water is used to help harvest the fruit in the fall, but the rest of the year cranberry plants grow in sandy marshes with very acidic soils called bogs.

I live in Massachusetts and my work is to study plant diseases that affect cranberries. Massachusetts is where cranberries were first cultivated and it’s still one of the top three cranberry-producing states in the U.S. There are a lot of cranberry farmers here, so my goal of studying plant diseases is to help farmers grow more and healthier cranberry fruit.

What Bugs Cranberries?

There are many plant diseases that can harm cranberry plants. The most serious disease is called fruit rot and it is caused by many, many different fungi. This disease can cause growers to lose a lot of money if they are not prepared or do not know how to prevent it. By setting up experiments that help me understand why this disease occurs and how to prevent l it, I can then teach growers what to do in their own farms. 

One way of preventing plant diseases is by first learning what causes it and why it occurs. Once you have some information about the pathogen (germs) that causes the disease, you can start looking at how it moves into a field, how it spreads from plant to plant, which plants it infects or how it survives the winter. With this information, a plant pathologist can think of ways of stopping the pathogen from coming into a field or spreading from plant to plant, or perhaps he or she can come up with ways of protecting the plant parts prone to get infected by the pathogen.

For example, many of the cranberry pathogens which cause fruit rot live in old, dead cranberry leaves and berries that fall on the ground every spring, summer, and fall. The pathogens can survive the winter in these old leaves and fruit and that’s how to they get to stay in the field, close to cranberry plants they will infect the following year.

It sounds simple, but this took many, many years of research observing the pathogens and doing experiments to discover how they survive the winter!!

Saving Cranberries

Now we know that farmers can get rid of these pathogens by getting rid of the leaves and old fruit in their bogs before spring. They do so by raking the leaves, or flooding the bog which is a lot more efficient than raking an entire field! Cranberry farmers commonly put a small layer of sand over cranberry plants because it helps the plant grow more shoots.

There are many ways to avoid and control plant diseases. One way is to use chemicals, called pesticides that can protect plants from plant pathogens and insects.  Before growers spend a lot of time and money using chemicals that won’t work on their big cranberry farms, I first test the chemicals in smaller areas or inside a greenhouse. I can even run several experiments using many different chemicals and then I can tell the farmers which worked best against cranberry diseases and which ones probably won’t work. This not only saves time and money, it also avoids unnecessary chemicals being released in the environment or used on the fruit.

My job is very exciting because I get to do a lot of different things like working inside a lab or setting up experiments outdoors. The other day I flew a drone over cranberry bogs to see how healthy the plants looked from above, it was very, very cool! But perhaps my one of my favorite things about my job is that is that I get to share my research with people that really need it and explain what they need to know about plant pathogens. This lets me be a scientist and also a teacher.