Remembering the Gooseberry

Once banned by the government, this traditional English berry makes a comeback.


| October/November 1999



176-064-01-recipes


What are those? is the reaction I most often get when people see my gooseberries for sale at the local farmers' market. Usually, the only people who recognize the small green, pink, red or yellow translucent berries are those old enough to remember when the federal government banned the cultivation of gooseberries in the 1930s. Back then, loggers were convinced the gooseberry bush was helping to spread white pine blister rust, a disease threatening timber crops at the time. It's been 33 years since the ban was lifted and it's still hard to find gooseberries in stores, especially outside of a New England. Which may help to explain why gooseberry lovers are generally thrilled to find this tart-ripening-to-sweet fruit at outdoor markets.

But even before the 1930s, gooseberries were never very popular in the United States. Then, as now, only a handful of varieties were available here, compared to the thousands grown and sold in England, where they've long been a great favorite. Recently, however, America has shown a renewed interest in this hardy berry. Some people like them red ripe, when they're at their sweetest and juiciest, while others prefer them still green and full of tart flavor. Regardless, this easy to grow plant always produces large quantities of delicious and versatile fruit.

What are Gooseberries?

Gooseberries belong to the genus Ribes, along with currants and some related ornamental shrubs. They are a low-growing bush with fringed leaves that turn a brilliant red in the fall. The bushes will thrive in both light shade and full sun and can be planted to form an edible hedge. The cooler and moister climate of the northern United States is best for gooseberries. They can tolerate extremely low temperatures (zone 3), but cannot survive where summers are extremely hot and dry, such as in the Southwest.

Gooseberry varieties fall into two categories: the small fruited but mildew resistant American gooseberry (Ribes hirtellum) and the larger European gooseberry (Ribes uva-crispa). Most all varieties of gooseberries have long spines, although some are completely thornless. When you're shopping around for a plant, look for varieties at local garden centers that are disease resistant, well suited to the growing conditions in your area and that are said to have excellent flavor. These days you probably won't find too many different types of gooseberry plants, but the recent rediscovery of gooseberries by American fruit growers and consumers should result in increased research, variety development and availability.

For now, Pixwell is a common American variety and is widely available through mail order nurseries. They are hardy, productive and almost thornless, but the fruit quality is not as good as some of the less common varieties. The Welcome variety, on the other hand, has better flavor than the Pixwell and produces medium-sized wine-red fruit. Another common gooseberry, the Hinnonmaki Red, produces an abundance of delicious red fruit and is mildew resistant.

Planting

Before planting gooseberries, check with your local cooperative extension office or Department of Agriculture to learn if any growing restrictions or bans are in effect in your state. Although the federal prohibition ended in 1966, it's my understanding that Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Rhode Island still forbid gooseberry planting. Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, Ohio, New Jersey, Virginia and West Virginia have planting restrictions. Some states require gooseberries to be planted at least 100 feet from white pines, since it's believed that the rust spores can't travel far from the plant.

You only need to plant one variety, as the plants are self-fruitful and do not require cross pollination. A northwest or northern area in partial shade to sun is the perfect site for gooseberries. If possible, plant them in a location that is likely to remain favorable for the duration of their life span, which is often up to 30 years or more.

Space the plants at least five feet apart, farther if you want to be able to mow all the way around them. A well-drained fertile loam that is high in organic matter makes the optimum soil. Add compost or well composted manure to the planting hole and work it in thoroughly. Keep your gooseberries well watered, just as you would any newly set out plants. Trim off any broken branches after planting and mound sawdust or straw mulch around the base of the plant, as gooseberries do best if their roots are kept cool in summer. I use a composted horse manure containing sawdust to mulch and fertilize at the same time. 

tara steffen
8/7/2009 7:48:43 AM

Love your article on gooseberries. I referenced it in my blog - Equip My Kitchen.com






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