The smaller cranberry's botanical name, vaccinium oxycoccos, comes from the Latin vacca, meaning cow because cows seem to be fond of them. Oxycoccos refers to the sharp leaves of the plant. This variety is primarily known in Europe. In North America, the large-berry variety is V. macrocarpon, from macro which means large, with oval leaves.
The English word cranberry is the shortened version of craneberry, which came from the plant's flowers that dip down and resemble the head of a crane. These birds are also fond of the berries which grow in bogs where cranes make their home. In Canada, cranberries are often referred to by their Amerindian name, atoca. Cranberries are also known as bounceberries, because they literally bounce if dropped when fresh and bearberry, since bears also love them.
Highbush cranberries (Viburnum trilobum) are a completely different fruit of the honeysuckle family, although similar in appearance. Highbush cranberries grow on a shrub with pointed leaves where cranberries grow on a vine with oval leaves.
Highbush cranberries have a single seed which is not eaten. They can be used interchangebly in any recipe using pureed cranberries, once the seeds have been removed using a sieve.
The Pilgrims learned all about cranberries from the Native Americans, who recognized the natural preservative power (benzoic acid) in the berries and often mixed them into pemmican (dried meat mixture) to extend its shelf life.
Cranberry sauce came into the picture via General Ulysses S. Grant who ordered it served to the troops during the seige of Petersburg in 1864. Cranberry sauce was first commercially canned in 1912 by the Cape Cod Cranberry Company which marketed the product as "Ocean Spray Cape Cod Cranberry Sauce." A merger with other growers evolved into the well-known Ocean Spray corporation now famous for their cranberry products.